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THE SIN OF WIT
Jonathan Swift as a Poet
Swift had the sin of wit, no venial crime;
Nay, 'twas affirm'd, he sometimes dealt in rhime;
Humour, and mirth, had place in all he writ:
He reconcil'd divinity and wit.
("The Author upon Himself," 9-12)
GORDIAN PRESS, INC. 1966
Copyright 1950, Syracuse University Press
Published by Gordian Press, Inc. with permission
of Syracuse University Press, 1966
Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 66-29464
Printed in U.S.A. by
EDWARDS BROTHERS, INC.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
A CKNOW LEDGMEN TS
My thanks are due to Professor Marjorie Hope Nicolson,
Mr. Harold Williams, Professor Herbert Davis, Professor
Joseph Wood Krutch, and Mr. Weldon Kees, who took the
time to read early drafts of this book in typescript. My chief
debt for continued encouragement and advice I owe to Pro-
fessor James Lowry Clifford of Columbia University. From
Professor Lester Middleswarth Beattie, Professor Ricardo
Quintana, Professor Gilbert Highet, and Mr. T.S. Eliot, I
have received certain materials, information, or suggestions.
Nancy Dilworth Johnson and Laurie Johnson have assisted
me in various ways. The Pierpont Morgan Library has per-
mitted me to examine manuscripts and letters in Swift's hand.
A portion of the Appendix to this book has been published in
Modern Language Notes.
Most of the quotations from Swift's poems are based upon
texts in the Syracuse University Library: Volumes 11 (1737),
VI (1738), and Vlll (1746) of the Works published by George
Faulkner in Dublin. For every quotation I have made compari-
son with the text in Mr. Harold Williams's indispensable an-
notated edition of the Poems, 1937.
THE SIN OF WIT
JONATHAN SWIFT AS A POET
I. HE SOMETIMES DEALT IN RHIME 1
1. Preparation for Poetry
2. "A Description of the Morning"
3. "On Poetry: A Rapsody"
4. Craftsmanship in the Poetry
II. HUMOUR, AND MIRTH, HAD PLACE IN ALL
HE WRIT 32
1. Swift's Idea of Humor
2. Acting in Character
3. Vanessa, Stella, and Daphne
4. Harley and Sheridan
5. "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift"
III. SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT 67
1. Swift's Idea of Wit
2. The Pattern for "The Day of Judgement"
4. "A Description of a City Shower" and "Baucis
5. Specific Parodies
6. "The Legion Club"
IV. HE RECONCIL'D DIVINITY AND WIT 106
1. Moral Poems
2. "Unprintable" Poems
3. "The Lady's Dressing-Room"
V. SHOALS OF CRITICS 122
APPENDIX: ELIOT, HARDY, JOYCE, YEATS, AND
THE GHOST OF SWIFT 130
PORTRAIT OF SWIFT. By B. Wilson, 1751. Courtesy of the
Pierpont Morgan Library. Facing page 60
FACSIMILE OF THE HANDWRITING OF SWIFT. First page
of early version of "Baucis and Philemon." Courtesy of the
Pierpont Morgan Library. Facing page 92
LEMUEL GULLIVER AMONG YAHOOS. Illustration for
Gulliver's Travels, Hawk es worth's edition, London, 1755.
Courtesy of the Ranke Collection, Syracuse University Li-
brary. Facing page 116
SWIFT AND POPE AMONG SATYRS. Frontispiece to Jona-
than Smedley's Gulliveriana, London, 1728, published anon-
ymously. Courtesy of the Columbia University Library
Facing page 124
If the reader of poetry is a delicate sounding-board only
for parlor sentiment, "beauties," and what he hopes is sub-
limity, he will feel lamentable rudeness in much of the poetry
of Jonathan Swift. Parlor sentiment is turned inside-out or
upside-down in Swift's pages, "beauties" prove to be im-
postors, and sublimity can be a source for mirth. No one
disagrees that a very significant type of poetry is breath-
taking in loveliness, awakening reverent emotions that soar
into the stratosphere. Hardly anyone would disagree either
that even in inspired hands this type of poetry often goes
wrong: when sublimity turns out to be only dull or full of
gas, it is poetry's most obtrusive source of embarrassment.
It is, Swift wrote in "An Epistle to a Lady Who Desired the
Author to Make Verses on Her, in the Heroick Stile," like
a rocket meant to pierce the sky but only bursting into
pieces in middle air, failing in a thousand sparkles, anil
returning dead to earth:
Thus, shou'd I attempt to climb,
Treat you in a stile sublime,
Such a rocket is my Muse;
Shou'd I lofty numbers chuse,
E'er I reach'd Parnassus' top
I shou'd burst, and bursting drop.
Swift had no mercy for the ambitious scribbler who cried
out that he was soaring like a swan while he still fluttered
and flopped on the drawingroom carpet:
And now he spreads his little fans,
(For all the Muses' geese are swans)
And borne on Fancy's pinions, thinks,
He soars sublimest when he sinks . . .
("Vanbrug's House," early version, 49-52)
More consistently than his fellow Augustans, the author of
Gulliver's Travels held the Sublime and Beautiful in doubt
and had the audacity to laugh at them when they seemed a
fraud. Other members of the Scriblerus Club— dedicated to
the ridicule of pedants and correction of false tastes—joined
him only occasionally in this crotchety attitude. Gay, for
instance, is best known for happy burlesques like The
Beggar's Opera, but he tried high flights in Dione and The
Captives. Though not quite sure of himself, another Scrib-
lerian, Parnell, wanted to believe with Milton that poetry
is a heavenly beneficence: "My God! I think I feel the gift
is thine," Parnell wrote hopefully of his own Muse. In "Peri
Bathous: or the Art of Sinking in Poetry" Pope formulated
rules for Low Verse and ironically told how to mix clouds
and billows for a poetic tempest, set fire to a town in rhyme,
or put Jupiter "in a ferment." Yet Pope himself attempted
some serious flights of imagination. He would not have
wished to share Swift's reckless description of his own poetry
No thought, no fancy, no sublime . . ,
("To Mr. Delany," 11)
For Thomas Hobbes the sublime consisted of poetical
fancy and fury; for Sir William Temple it was that which
amazed; and the critic John Dennis, defining it at length
at the beginning of the eighteenth century, identified it with
"enthusiastick passion." Dennis's enthusiastic passions
are six: admiration or wonder, terror, horror, joy, sadness,
and desire. He insisted that these emotions are strongest
when they rise from enthusiasms predominantly religious.
Now, fanatics, enthusiastic preachers, and excess of re-
ligious ecstasy are the subjects of some of Swift's most
violent ridicule, especially in A Tale of a Tub and A Dis-
course Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit,
when he wickedly describes the preacher's "sublime" snuf-
fling and nose-blowing that pierce the hearts of a simple-
minded congregation. Pulpit-enthusiasm for him was merely
the art of canting, devoid of wit, humor, or sincerity. Cant-
ing seemed to him no more attractive in poetry than in the
He scorned poets like Sir Richard Blackmore, who wrote
a Satyr against Wit and set himself up as a sublime poet,
carefully seeking to evoke wonder, terror, joy, and a sense
of vastness. Blackmore's poems are heavy-laden with "pure
cerulean fields," "waste places," "effulgent emanations,"
"rolling worlds immense," "heaven's bright towers," and
"fierce storms." Despite all his endeavor Blackmore's
storms are not very fierce and his towers are not very bright.
The Dunciad ridicules the braying of this "enthusiast," and
in Swift's verses "On Poetry: A Rapsody" poor Blackmore
is thrust with a leaden crown into the category of the "low
sublime," which is beneath the ridiculous.
At least one of Swift's own poems appears on first exam-
ination to suit all the eighteenth-century critical requirements
for sublimity of the loftiest kind. Dennis, like Edmund Burke
after him, saw terror as a grand emotion and wrote that the
greater the terror in a poem, the greater the poem might be.
Nothing, he said, neither ruined abbeys nor howling ghosts
nor the thought of bodily decay, was so terrible— and sub-
lime—as the idea of an angry God. It is difficult to imagine
an angrier God than the Jove of Swift's "Day of Judgement."
But Swift deliberately and paradoxically spurns sublimity.
By means of a witty stylistic device, in "The Day of Judge-
ment" and other poems, he builds up an effect only to over-
turn it. He is deliberately anti-"poetic"— opposing insincerity,
prettiness, and the false sublime.
Just as sublimity itself in Swift's day had been measured
and weighed and was attempted by recipe, poems were gen-
erally written to fit into compartments each unmistakably
identified. On each poetic compartment sat a proprietary Muse
representing the noble epic, the ode, satire, the elegy, the
epistle, the song, pastorals and georgics, imitations and
translations, or occasional verse. These genres— and their
variations— had forms and patterns based upon respected
tradition; there was precedent at hand for almost any poetic
expression proper to the Age of Reason. The writer of verses
chose the compartment most suited to what he had in mind;
and when his verses had been printed, they were read by a
public expecting to recognize one of the conventional kinds
of poetry. In the early years of the eighteenth century it was
even possible to identify the nature of certain poems by their
format: broadside elegies and their appended epitaphs were
printed in black letter and could not be mistaken, with their
mourning margins that showed cross-bones, shrouds, coffins,
skeletons, and a "memento mori." The nature of a poem was
often explicit in its title: "The Medal 1: A Satyre against
Sedition"; "Rural Sports: A Georgic, Inscribed to Mr. Pope*';
"The Bard: A Pindaric Ode'*; "Elegy Wrote in a Country
Church-yard." An eighteenth-century audience, knowing what
to look for in verse, required no such explanation as that
provided by the publishers of a twentieth-century Baroque
Eclogue. "Mr. Auden's latest poem, The Age of Anxiety, is
an eclogue," the supposedly puzzled reader is informed;
"that is to say, it adopts the pastoral convention in which
a natural setting is contrasted with an artificial style of
But poets occasionally reminded themselves of the rules.
In Restoration days the Earl of Mulgrave's "Essay upon
Poetry" had rehearsed the "differing kinds" and "various
sorts of verse." Thirty years later there was a similar re-
hearsal of "all kinds of poetry" in John Gay's "Epistle to
Bernard Lintott." Both of them prescribe that the elegy, for
instance, must be "of sweet but solemn voice" and must
"fill some pages with melodious woe."
Swift, like his fellow-poets, paused to categorize the
various sorts of verse. But unlike them he was less con-
cerned with the rules than with the pitfalls of poetry, satir-
izing contemporary cliches:
When wretched lovers live on air,
I beg you'll the camelion spare.
No son of mine shall dare to say,
Aurora usher' d in the day
Your tragick heroes shall not rant,
Nor shepherds use poetick cant....
If ANNA's happy reign you praise,
Pray not a word of halcyon days.
When poets soar in youthful strains,
No Phaeton to hold the reins.
("Apollo's Edict," 16-17, 20-21,
27-28, 44-15, 52-53)
He differed from Mulgrave and Gay by demonstrating the way
in which an elegy should not be written:
When Damon*s soul shall take its flight,
Tho' poets have the second sight,
They shall not see a trail of light:
Nor shall the vapour upwards rise,
Nor a new star adorn the skies....
In the same manner that Swift chaffed what he considered
to be the false sublime, he parodied the several fixed kinds
of verse fashionable in the eighteenth century. The titles of
his poems show that he wrote within the accepted patterns:
there are epistles, odes, ballads, elegies, imitations and
translations, pastoral dialogues, and occasional verses.
But more often than not, the reader soon discovers, it is
"A Satirical Elegy," "A Quibbling Epigram," "A Love Song
in the Modern Taste/* or "Verses on I Know Voi What. " His
"Famous Prediction of Merlin" is a practical joke that fooled
even Dr. Johnson; and "A Pastoral Dialogue" pitilessly bur-
lesques the elegant diction expected in that kind of poem.
Because burlesque itself was among the "various kinds"
of verse, it too was written according to rules. The reader
of burlesque was almost certain to encounter preposterous
distortions of famous lines of poetry. Swift was outdone only
by Pope in this sort of parody:
Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep....
(Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 890-891)
may she better learn to keep
Those secrets of the hoary deep!
(Swift, "The Lady's Dressing-Roora," 97-98)
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull ....
(Denham, "Cooper's Hill," 191-192)
Her hands the softest ever felt,
Tho* cold would burn, tho' dry would melt.
(Swift, "Strephon and Chloe," 27-28)
'Tis doubtful which is sea, and which is sky.
(Garth, The Dispensary, V, 176)
'Twas doubtful which was rain, and which was dust.
(Swift, "A Description of a City Shower," 26)
Not content with holding the false sublime up to public
ridicule and parodying the several compartments of poetry,
Swift sometimes played frivolous games with the Latinity
that most other poets of his day used solemnly. Toward the
end of his life he liked to address his friends in a kind of
pig-Latin overborne with puns f as in his "Love Song" that
begins "Apud in is almi des ire...." (A puddin' is all my
Though he once complained in a letter that "This Virgil
sticks plaguily on ray hands," the Latinity in which he was
schooled plagued his verse through "Baucis and Philemon,"
"The Legion Club," and "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift."
It was not, for instance, the Christian God that he addressed
or referred to in all his poetry, but the Latin Jove (less odd
perhaps than Gerard Manley Hopkins's referring to God as
"Sir"). When he wrote his single poem describing Nature,
it was not in his own language but in the severity of Latin.
His "Carberiae Rupes," 1723, describing the violence of
angry sea and raging wind, has something in common with
Samuel Johnson's calmer Nature poems for which he also
resorted to the cover of Latin, immured against what might
be considered sentimentality.
Ther© is angry indignation like that of Juvenal in "The
Legion Club" and other poems; but Swift's work more often
shares the wit, humor, and felicity of diction to be found in
Horace, from whom some of his most humorous lampoons are
derived. "Had he lived in the same age with Horace," the
Earl of Orrery wrote in his Remarks upon the Life and Writ-
ings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, "he would have approached nearer
to him, than any other poet." Like Pope and most of his
other contemporaries he appropriated the Odes, Satires, and
Epistles for his own use, paraphrasing and imitating, as some
modern poets have done with the works of Rilke and Baude-
Schooled like Swift in Latin, attuned to the neo-classical
code, and suspicious of singularity, the eighteenth-century
reader of poetry expected to find reflections of Latinity in a
new miscellany or volume of verses "on Several Occasions."
Swift's imitations of Horace addressed to Harley must have
seemed admirable to such a reader; and even his scatological
"Lady's Dressing-Room" (printed in The Gentleman* s Mag-
azine opposite a page of statistics on the national debt) must
have seemed properly reminiscent of Juvenal. But the eight-
eenth-century reader probably saw some rudeness in Swift's
descriptions of Roman goddesses in un-heavenly postures;
his preference for Cloacina over Diana; his rhymes of
"Juno"/ "you know," "solum" / "stole 'urn," and "Livy" /
"privy"; and his lines "in praes o Molli":
Has an acuti.
No lasso finis;
Omi de armistres,
Imi na Dis tres;
Cantu disco ver
Meas alo ver.
The Grubstreet hack of William Hogarth's realistic engrav-
ing "The Distressed Poet" sits in a miserable garret, his re-
jected manuscript beside him as he desperately writes for
money to pay his landlady and provide food for his family.
This is no more like Swift than are conventional eighteenth-
century engravings that depict poets with garlands at their
feet, Cupids poised above them, and the Muses proffering
wreaths of laurel. Although Swift appears in this Augustan
attitude in the frontispiece to the Dublin edition of his
Poems on Several Occasions, it is hard to believe nowadays
that the engraving was entirely serious in intention, espec-
ially since the "Advertisement" to that edition introduces
the poems as consisting "either of humour or satyr, and very
often of both together." More characteristically Swift the
poet would have been shown in the pose that the Earl of
Rochester assumed for his portrait: crowning a long-tailed
monkey with a wreath of bays.
Because Swift was a parodist in verse (as he was in prose),
"serious" poets of the eighteenth century went out of their
way to avoid resembling him. In his essay "Eighteenth-
Century Poetic Diction" Professor Geoffrey Tillotson men-
tions Swift only to say that his insistence upon calling a
spade a spade frightened other neo-classic poets into the
periphrasis of "billowy main," "bleating kind," "scaly
breed," "humble swain," or "enameled plain." Addison
advised in Spectator 285 that "a poet should take particular
care to guard himself against idiomatic ways of speaking."
To be idiomatic was exactly what Swift intended in most of
Even as a satirist Swift was occasionally an exception in
his age. Professor James Sutherland (A Preface to Eighteenth
Century Poetry) differentiates Swift from Addison, Steele,
Pope, and Fielding, whose satire was intended for readers
already convinced of the opinions to be presented. Like
Byron and Shaw, of two succeeding centuries, Swift some-
times flew in the face of public opinion. Although he always
reminded other writers of their obligations to polite opinion,
Swift was, Professor Sutherland concludes, **a law to him-
In the science of physics "to sublime" means to pass
directly from a solid to an expansive, gaseous state. For
poetry to be "sublime" it must have an analogous quality
of rising and expanding; and it must to some degree be in-
flammable. Like his prose, Swift's poetry is solid, concise,
intense, and tangible; once touched by the hand, it will al-
most always change in form, may prove to be a hoax that in
turn proves to be deadly serious, or may be ice that scorches;
but it remains a solid. This does not, however, mean that it
cannot give pleasure; for, being poetry of humor and wit, it
both delights and surprises.
HE SOMETIMES DEALT IN RHIME
PREPARATION FOR POETRY
The seventeenth century was dying when Jonathan Swift
was young. Yet he at first identified himself with the dying
century, deferentially invoking the metaphysical Muse that
had once served Abraham Cowley. In his first published poem,
written with Cowley as his model, Swift tenderly addressed
a "young and (almost) Virgin-muse," a Muse that toward the
middle of the next century, in "Verses on the Death of Dr.
Swift," he dismissed as "a jade" worn out through decades
of assistance to his wit. When Swift had become an Augustan,
he soon found in Cowley a source for parody and irreverent
laughter. As neatly as the death of Dryden in 1700 closed
the century, Cowley's death in 1667, the same year Swift was
born, marked an exchange of the old age for the new.
Throughout his poetic career, at first imitative and then
reactionary before it was truly creative, Swift was a self-
conscious craftsman. Occasionally he recorded his poetic
problems and aspirations, as he did in a long, confessional,
discursive letter to his cousin Thomas in May, 1692, in his
twenty-fourth year. It is a letter that reveals as much about
2 HE DEALT IN RHIME
his early endeavors as do the poems themselves. He has
regularly set aside two hours of the morning for writing and
revision of his odes, he tells his cousin, and must "alter
them a hundred times/' although he does not consider him*
self "a laborious dry writer." In his wish to compose some-
thing "easy to be understood" he is self-critical, and he is
concerned with the "honesty of poets," believing that the
ability to write well necessitates a deserving subject. His
ingenuous admission of overfondness for his own lines ("I
have a sort of vanity or foiblesse") and his pride in his first
published poem reflect a serious effort behind his versifying.
And across this letter to his cousin, as well as across the
early poems, lie the heavy shadows of Abraham Cowley,
"rich Mr. Cowley," the "Pindaric" Cowley he wanted to
emulate, and Sir William Temple, whom Swift preferred "to
all others at present in England." Not only the idea for the
ode to the Athenian Society but even figures of speech in
the early poems come in large part from Temple, the founder
of the Privy Council and negotiator of the Triple Alliance,
who had now retired to his orchards and kept Jonathan Swift
as his servant among the pippins, muscadines, apricots,
folios, quartos, she 11-roclc -work, and female relatives at Moor
Park. In his Miscellanea Temple remarked: "I have had sev-
eral servants far gone in divinity, others in poetry...."; and
when he recommended Swift for employment, he wrote: "I
venture to make you the offer of a servant, in case you may
have occasion for such a one as this bearer...." The servant—
his duties were actually those of a personal secretary— en-
deavored to please his master and flattered him by repeating
his stalest pronouncements and similes.
Cyril Connolly, describing Temple as an old Polonius and
the M. de Norpois of his day, attributes his influence on
Swift to a kind of auto-suggestion. There was another impor-
tant influence, however— that of the old Polonius's library,
in which Swift read hungrily. In 1697 he kept a list of books
he read at Moor Park. Chiefly classical, they included Homer,
Virgil, Horace, Lucretius, Petronius, Voiture, Blackmore s
Prince Arthur, and Hobbes's translation of Thucydides. In
1697, too, he wrote most of those remarkable fables called
THE SIN OF WIT 3
A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, in which every
page, through allusion, parody, or imitation, reflects hours
spent in the library. Among the Ancients and Moderns he
ranged against each other in the famous "battle" were Aesop,
Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, and Pindar; Cowley, Davenant, Den-
ham, Wesley, Blaclcmore, and Dryden (with a helmet "nine
times too large for the head"). Missing from these lists is
the name of one writer significant in the study of Swift's
poetry. In these early years, when he was receiving his M.A.
from Oxford, being ordained a priest, returning intermittently
to Moor Park, and trying to find his place in the world, he
may already have known the poetry of Samuel Butler. It is
the poetry most like his own of later years. And he is sup-
posed to have been able, as an old Dean, to recite all of
Butler's Hudibras. There is no record of his ability to do
this with the work of any other poet, ancient or modern.
The "Ode to the Athenian Society," as Swift wrote in the
letter to his cousin, was "rough drawn in a week, and fin-
ished in two days after." It was addressed to the anonymous
writers for the Athenian Gazette, a weekly periodical that
professed to answer all queries submitted to it. With a pref-
atory letter, in which Swift hinted at encouragement from
Temple, unnamed, the poem was published in a supplement
to the fifth volume of the Gazette early in 1692. It was Swift's
first appearance in print, and probably his least attractive
effort. "The Ramble," mentioned in the letter to his cousin,
has been lost, along with another piece called "The Poet";
and although two versions of an ode to King William have
been attributed to Swift, there is no absolute proof of his
authorship. The early poems that can definitely be estab-
lished, then, are the "Ode to the Athenian Society," the
"Ode to Sir William Temple," the "Ode to Dr. William San-
croft," "To Mr. Congreve," and "Occasioned by Sir W(illiam)
T(emple)'s Late Illness and Recovery." Of these only the
three entitled "Ode" are in the rhetorical, irregular "Pin-
daric" form borrowed from Cowley. Heroic couplets are used
for the poem to Congreve and that purporting to celebrate
Temple's recovery from illness. Only the ode in the Athenian
Gazette was published in Swift's lifetime.
4 HE DEALT IN RHIME
Without much coherence the "Ode to the Athenian Society"
rants about Swift's own poetic Muse, modern pedantry, and
the world's natural decay, which will bring disintegration of
even the brilliant Athenian Society. These "exalted men,/
Who have well studied in the world's disease" will be suc-
ceeded by "Gothic swarms" from "Ignorance's universal
North," a "Careless and ignorant posterity..." Imagery in
the poem is that of inevitable wasting away: with every pass-
ing age Philosophy is less certain; Learning and Wit are
fleeting and vain; winter sun is followed by "the long and
gloomy night"; and every noble work is doomed to "fall at
last to interest, folly, and abuse." This is an understandable
point of view for Sir William Temple, whose Privy Council
had failed, whose Triple Alliance had disintegrated, whose
only son had committed suicide, and who now consoled him-
self by fighting decay in his orchards. There is Temple's
voice more surely than his servant Swift's in the delineation
of inevitable darkness and disaster.
Again, in the "Ode to the Honourable Sir William Temple,"
it is less the voice of young Swift than of the old ambassador
that reminiscently exclaims:
Great God! (said I) what have I seen!
On what poor engines move
The thoughts of monarchs, and designs of states . . .
Dedicated to the "pleasures of retreat," well-groOmed plum
trees, woods, vales, and peace, this ode is an oddly arranged
bouquet of blandishments for the Great Man who had retired
from the ugly scrabble of politics to cultivate his prose-style
in leisurely essays "Upon the Gardens of Epicurus" and
"Of Health and Long Life." It is a versification of Temple's
own reasons for abandoning public office, telling how he
wished to secure for himself the peace he had tried to give
his country. Nine lines from the poem have modern interest,
because out of all Swift's early poems they seemed to W.B.
Yeats a marked exception. In conversation concerning Swift,
THE SIN OF WIT 5
Yeats called the attention of Harold Williams to the following
But what does our proud ign'rance Learning call,
We odly Plato's paradox make good,
Our knowledge is but mere remembrance all,
Remembrance is our treasure and our food;
Nature's fair table-book our tender souls
We scrawl all o'er with old and empty rules,
Stale memorandums of the schools;
For Learning's mighty treasures look
In that deep grave a book . . .
Temple in retirement, looking back on his years of activity,
might himself have written that "knowledge is but mere re-
Throughout the twelve stanzas of the third "Pindaric,"
the uncompleted "Ode to Dr. William Sancroft, Late Arch-
bishop of Canterbury," there is a well-defined set of images.
Sun is contrasted with cloud, light with darkness, and dazzle
with blindness. In the "dusky shade" of this world there is
no "brighter pattern" of Truth than Dr. Sancroft (whom Dryden
in Absalom and Achitophel had called "Zadock the priest").
He is like an unseen star shedding "his sacred influence
here." In Swift's eleventh stanza the sun-and-light imagery
becomes a blaze: Sancroft's "lustre" shows "glimm'rings
of the prelate glorify'd." He is compared to the evening sun
"behind a golden cloud" that leaves a "daz'ling glory":
"No deflower'd eye can face the naked light. . ." This imag-
ery, too, as in the "Ode to the Athenian Society," seems
borrowed, belonging here more to Milton and Cowley than to
Swift. Though obviously imitative, the poem seems more ac-
complished than Thomas Flatman's "Pindaric" ode also ad-
dressed to Dr. Sancroft. It is, as a matter of fact, no clumsier
than most of the odes of Cowley, Flatman, Congreve, Addison,
and Pope. Dryden's are the only real exception. T.S. Eliot
has remarked that, although the Pindaric ode cannot be proved
absolutely impossible in English, it has almost always turned
out dismal. For Swift to begin his career with an unwieldy
6 HE DEALT IN RHIME
vehicle, first trying his skill in a doomed medium, was as
hopeless as the project Lemuel Gulliver observed in the
Academy in Lagado, for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers.
Later, in "Directions for a Birth-day Song" and "On
Poetry: A Rapsody" he maliciously described the antics a
poet must perform to secure patronage, preferment, a laur-
eateship, or a guinea in the hand. Like other odes of his time
Swift's were probably intended as a means to an end, polit-
ical when they flattered the King or Sir William Temple,
religious when they praised Dr. Sancroft. Simultaneously with
his dropping of the "Pindaric" form, he fixed upon a new
goal, neither the court nor the church, but the World of Wits.
His younger schoolfellow, William Congreve, was already,
ahead of him, a member of that world, and Swift evidently
hoped now to join him. "To Mr. Congreve," written in Novem-
ber, 1693, could serve as his means of entrance: its couplets
would be printed with Congreve's second comedy, The Double-
Dealer, and would introduce Swift's name to fashionable so-
ciety and Grubstreet alike. But the rhymed epistle prefixed
to the first edition of that play in 1694 was not Swift's. It
was, instead, John Dryden's expert, gracious acknowledge-
ment of Ccngreve's genius— the old dean-of-the-poets' wel-
come to a young rival: "To My Dear Friend Mr. Congreve, on
His Comedy, Call'd, The Double-Dealer." Before the time
came for his epistle to be printed, Swift himself had com-
manded the world of the Wits and had been dead for over fifty
years. Even then nobody had much good to say for it. Only
one of its couplets, Juvenalian and anticipatory with its
"hate," "sin," "folly," and "lash" that reappear in later
poems, seemed worthy of the terrible Dean:
My hate, whose lash just heaven has long decreed
Shall on a day make sin and folly bleed . . .
Nowadays, however, "To Mr. Congreve" is properly re-
garded as Swift's first step toward mature, characteristic ac-
complishment in either poetry or prose, and thus occupies an
important place in the chronology of his works. With a de-
scription of a contemptible little fop, who has returned from
THE SIN OP WIT '
London as a "finish'd spark" and self-designated judge of
taste, the poem whips out at the whole tribe of town critics.
Most of the themes important in A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver 's
Travels, and the later poems appear here, only half realized
but already effective. Emile Pons in his exhaustive Jeunesse
de Swift, which long ago should have been published in
translation, has noted some of these themes: the same hate
for pedantry and rules that flashes through A Tale of a Tub;
the Yahoo-imagery of "odious smell"; the same true satirical
manner of poems like the "Epistle to a Lady" and "On
Poetry: A Rapsody"; and, most significant to Dr. Pons, a
Swiftian mythology, "le mythe animal" of the Houyhnhnms
and "The Beasts Confession." Ail these themes appear in
a passage printed in Geoffrey Grigson's interesting anthology
Before the Romantics. Under the title of "The Animal Critics"
this excerpt from the poem "To Mr. Congreve" seems dis-
tinctly better, as a sustained creative effort, than the par-
ticular verses by Dryden, Defoe, Tom Brown, and Elizabeth
Rowe, among which it stands:
What northern hive pour'd out these foes to wit?
Whence came these Goths to overrun the pit?
How would you blush the shameful birth to hear
Of those you so ignobly stoop to fear;
For, ill to them, long have I travell'd since
Round all the circles of impertinence,
Search'd in the nest where every worm did lie
Before it grew a city butterfly;
I'm sure I found them other kind of things
Than those with backs of silk and golden wings;
A search, no doubt, as curious and as wise
As virtuosoes* in dissecting flies;
For, could you think? the fiercest foes you dread,
And court in prologues, all are country-bred;
Bred in my scene, and for the poet's sins
Adjourn'd from tops and grammar to the inns;
Those beds of dung, where schoolboys sprout up beaus
Far sooner than the nobler mushroom grows:
These are the lords of the poetic schools,
Who preach the saucy pedantry of rules;
8 HE DEALT IN RHIME
Those pow'rs the criticks, who may boast the odds
O'er Nile, with all its wilderness of gods;
Nor could the nations kneel to viler shapes,
Which worship'd cats, and sacrific'd to apes;
And can you think the wise forbear to laugh
At the warm zeal that breeds this golden calf?
Here, to defend wit against its enemy the Critic, Swift com-
pares him to a worm, a cat, an ape, and a golden calf; even
a squatting mushroom has more nobility than he. The corus-
cating city butterfly is reminded that he has only recently
left the barnyard, a scene from which Swift often drew satir-
ical imagery. The beaux who sprout from "beds of dung" are
like the "gaudy" female "tulips rais'd from dung" in the
famous "Lady's Dressing-Room," four decades later: of all
Swift's images and symbols— wind, clothing, the barnyard,
dressing-rooms, and beasts, for instance— those pertaining
to excrement are his most constant. Here too, in this early
poem, are a swipe at "pedantry of rules," as in the "Di-
gression" to A Tale of a Tub, and a side-blow at virtuosos,
as in the Laputan parodies of the Royal Society. Not all this
passage from "To Mr. Congreve" is forward-looking, however.
The Goths pouring from a "northern hive" are the same
"Gothic swarms" that came out of "Ignorance's universal
North" in the "Ode to the Athenian Society." They are very
likely the same "Gothic swarms" with their "shades of ig-
norance" that Sir William Temple described in his essay
When Swift reread the lines of his verses "To Mr. Con-
greve," he may have imagined himself equal to Cowley
("when I write what pleases me I am Cowley to myself," he
had confessed to his cousin); or he may have been dis-
couraged. For in December, 1693, in verses "Occasioned by
Sir W(illiam) T(emple)'s Late Illness and Recovery," he dis-
missed his Muse. Suddenly desperate and disgusted, he vowed
never to woo the tyrant Muse again:
Malignant goddess! bane to my repose,
Thou universal cause of all my woes . . .
THE SIN OP WIT 9
Madness like this no fancy ever seiz'd,
Still to be cheated, never to be pleas'd;
Since one false beam of joy in sickly minds
Is all the poor content delusion finds.—
There thy enchantment broke, and from this hour
I here renounce thy visionary pow'r;
And since thy essence on ray breath depends,
Thus with a puff the whole delusion ends.
Trying to make a career of poetry, Swift had needed a
firmer guide than his own admiration for lumpish odes or his
wish to please his aphoristic old employer, Sir William Temple.
The criticism that finally came was not a guiding hand but
a hard push off a cliff, iu Dryden's judgment that he would
never be a poet. After the renunciation of his Muse, more
than five years passed before he wrote any poetry that he
preserved. And then it was the antithesis of the "Pindaric":
it took the form of a jingling lampoon in "The Problem,"
or it was the pleasant doggerel of "Mrs. Harris's Petition,"
or it was a ballad to the tune of "Cutpurse." There were even
vers de sociite in "Apollo Outwitted," addressed to Mrs.
Finch, who became the Countess of Winchilsea, and in the
lines "To Mrs. Biddy Floyd." There were rhymed jokes like
"An Elegy on Mr. Partrige" and "A Famous Prediction of
Merlin, the British Wizard; Written above a Thousand Years
Ago, and Relating to this Present Year."
All this is casual, sometimes careless, occasional verse
that is obviously not intended to have a place in a career
dedicated to poetry. That career seems to have been aban-
doned. But in "Baucis and Philemon" and "A Description
of the Morning," both published in 1709, there is the profes-
sional poet's sureness of touch. In both these poems there
is the pattern and type of wit that Swift perfected and that
hardly anyone has had the wit to imitate. Because it is half
reactionary and half creative, written with wit that has not
quite found itself, "A Description of the Morning" is a useful
poem for examination. It represents a transitional phase in
Swift's writing of poetry.
10 HE DEALT IN RHIME
"A DESCRIPTION OF THE MORNING"
"A Description of the Morning" has usually been considered
of more interest biographically than as a metrical accomplish-
ment. It was first published in Swift's forty-first year, while
he was in London on church business as a representative of
the Irish clergy. His Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books
had been published anonymously five years before, and seven-
teen years were to pass before the publication of Gulliver's
Travels. In 1709, at the time of "A Description of the Morn-
ing," Swift was entering a period of fame and excitement.
Now he was perhaps best known as the perpetrator, in his
"Bickerstaff" papers, of the most convulsing practical joke
of the decade; and within a year and a half he was to be
transformed forever from a rhyme-making priest into the king
of the Wits. Temporarily, too, he was to be a powerful figure
in English politics. In 1709 he wrote a gossipy account of his
London literary and political activities in a letter to Col.
Robert Hunter, a prisoner in France. It is a letter familiarly
concerned with Grubstreet, St. James's Coffeehouse, and the
vogue of operas. It wishes ill luck for the Duke of Marlborough,
refers to Whigs, Tories, and friends in the Ministry, and
speaks of literary men like "Namby-Paraby" Philips, Steele,
and Addison ("I am now with Mr. Addison, with whom I have
fifty times drunk your health since you left us"). Swift was
near the center of things.
In 1709 Queen Anne was in the seventh year of her reign,
Samuel Johnson was born, Henry Fielding was two years old,
young Pope was writing his "Essay on Criticism," and Steele,
taking suggestions from Swift, founded the Tatler. It was, in-
deed, in the ninth issue of the Tatler, for April 30, that "A
Description of the Morning" first appeared, with an introduc-
tion by "Isaac Bickerstaff." The poet, this introduction says,
"described things exactly as they happen: he never forms
fields, or nymphs, or groves, where they are not; but makes
the incidents just as they really appear. For an example of
it; I stole out of his manuscript the following lines: they are
THE SIN OF WIT 11
a description of the morning, but of the morning in town; nay,
of the morning at this end of town, where my kinsman at pre-
sent lodges." This could serve as an introduction to all the
rest of Swift's poetry to come; his attempt to combine sense
with wit left little place for the stage-scenery of "fields, or
nymphs, or groves."
At first glance, Swift seems to have provided no more than
a fairly interesting, particularized eighteenth-century scene
in his "Description of the Morning." Unlike the verses on his
death and the verses to Stella it is not self-consciously per-
sonal; unlike his "Legion Clubhand "Lady's Dressing-Room"
it does not make the reader's hair stand on end. It is a real-
istic set-piece. It might conceivably have been the text for
Hogarth's "Morning," which shows the Begging Crone, the
Loose Girl, the Persistent Rake, the Shivering Page, and the
Old Maid against a background of snowy pavement, dark build-
ings, and darker morning sky. Hogarth drew these type-figures
and symbols in a style that is witty, ironic, conversational,
and full of surprising contrasts; so that no matter how didactic
his purpose or how dreadful or commonplace his details, the
picture affords pleasure to the eye. Swift's style in his poetry
is a counterpart to this: his type-pictures and symbols are
often conventional, ready-made ones wittily placed in a new
relationship or unexpectedly altered. In "A Description of
the Morning," although the subject itself is ready-made, the
general texture of the poem, in contrast, is unconventional
As in Hogarth's chilly morning scene, Swift's picture is
that of stairways, gateways, and the street, where a few
hackney-coaches show that another workday is at hand. De-
spite the title of the poem, there is no description of Nature.
The maid, the apprentice, and the schoolboy dominate the
scene, with the mop, old broom, and satchel of books that
serve as symbols for their place in life. The people in the
poem do not look forward to a day that promises satisfaction
or romance: morning means only the end of the night's pleas-
ures if there were any, the return to menial tasks, the resum-
ing of responsibilities and involvements, and fcr some the
jail, or— for the schoolboy just as confining— the classroom.
12 HE DEALT IN RHIME
The Slipshod 'Prentice, the Small-Coal Man, the Dun-Bearers,
Brick-Dust Moll, and the Watchful Bailiffs of the poem are un-
" poetic" symbols standing for all the workaday creatures who
appear with every dawn. They represent a disenchanted idea
of Morning~*/ie morning, as the title states. Because it is not
merely a morning that Swift describes, the poem becomes a
statement of a point of view, a way of looking at life, and an
attitude: as he does elsewhere more violently, he says here
that life is an experience more likely to be routine and stupid
than a romantic picnicking. And he expresses this attitude,
paradoxically, by means of wit that implies an enjoyment of
The true wit of such a poem as "A Description of the Morn-
ing" issues from its surprising distortion of familiar poetic
form and language. Here Swift mocks the elaborate descrip-
tions of time-points (dawn, midnight, etc.) which appear in
Greek, Roman and modern classicizing poetry: the cliche*
"Now Aurora had left the bed of Tithonus" becomes "Now
Betty from her master's bed had flown" in Swift's parody.
Parody of "poetic" diction grins out from almost every line
of Swift's poems like "A Description of the Morning." That
particular piece leaves a commonplace impression— on first
reading— largely because it has the appearance of a hundred
other eighteenth-century verses which go something like this:
"Milady twirls her fan with dext'rous airs,/ Prepar'd to make
her entry down the stairs. . ." or "The parson now his flock
returning sees. . ." Swift's poem does not sound quite like
that: he has made witty substitutions in the old familiar
phrases and laughs at other poetry while he is writing a poem
of his own. The reader sees upon examination that "milady"
has been metamorphosed into a scrub-girl, the "fan" is a mop,
and the "parson" has become a jailer waiting for his wards:
Now Moll had whirl'd her mop with dext'rous airs,
Prepar'd to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The turn-key now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees.
THE SIN OF WIT 13
A Description of the Morning
Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
Appearing show'd the ruddy morn's approach:
Now Betty from her master's bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.
The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door
Had par'd the dirt and sprinkled round the floor.
Now Moll had whirl'd her mop with dext'rous airs,
Prepar'd to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge where wheels had worn the place.
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep;
Till drown'd in shriller notes of chimney-sweep.
Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet;
And brick-dust Moll had scream'd thro' half a street.
The turn-key now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees.
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands;
And school-boys lag with satchels in their hands.
Characteristic though most of the poem is, it very likely
reflects the hand of Addison alongside Swift's. Addison wrote
of Swift as "the greatest genius of his age," but took it for
granted that he should criticize, refine, or perhaps even re-
write his friend's metrical compositions. His changes for
"Baucis and Philemon" were numerous and always directed
toward correctness and propriety. It is possible that the heroic
couplets in "A Description of the Morning" were the suggest-
ion of Addison; and it is interesting to consider whether the
poem might not have been racier and stronger if written in the
four-stress poetical line Swift had already taken for his own
use. But as in "A Description of a City Shower," "The Author
upon Himself," and two or three of the adaptations from
Horace, Swift's heroic couplets here are no Iron Maiden in
which the poem is clamped. There are everywhere adjust-
ments, loosenings, and pressures to make the meter fit the
The first two lines of "A Description of the Morning" set
14 HE DEALT IN RHIME
the basic metrical pattern of iambic pentameter and closed
couplets. In the third line, however, there is no strong accent
on the word "from," where it would naturally fall, and the
line moves more rapidly to suggest the haste of Mrs. Betty.
In the thirteenth and sixteenth lines there are departures from
the metrical norm of the poem in "Duns" and "Duly": instead
of the regular iambic opening, the accent falls on the first
syllable in these lines. Throughout the poem there is a marked
secondary accent in the unusual number of compound words—
in "small-coal," "brick-dust," "turn-key," and "school-
boys" especially. Half the lines in the poem deviate from the
basic metrical pattern.
In the line "Now MOLL had whirPd her MOP with dext'rous
airs," there is conscious manipulation of sound. There is not
only alliteration in "Moll" and "mop," but there is assonance
of the accompanying vowel, so that the interplay of these
similar-sounding words gives an effect of action to the word
"whirl'd" that is between them. Though the poem is rich with
alliteration, it is not always seriously employed. The ugly,
asthmatic first line is surely intended to give the clue to the
parody to follow:
Now HARDly HERE and there a HACKney-coach . . .
Beyond those that have been noted, there are other effects of
sound that were very likely conscious ones, such as the
repetition in "TURN-key" and "reTURNing" in the fifteenth
line, or the more subtle, less certain echo in "ApPEARing,"
"Had PAR'D," and "PrePAR'D" in lines two, six, and eight.
The line "And school-boys lag with satchels in their
hands," with which "A Description of the Morning" con-
cludes, is admirable for its easy, unobtrusive handling of
meter and sound-combinations. After the descriptions of pre-
dawn and early-morning activities in the poem, the appearance
of the schoolboys marks a kind of finality: daytime has now
arrived. The line moves slowly, with triple-stress on "school-
boys lag" and repetition of a in "And," "lAg," "sAtchels,"
and "hAnds." It is a line perennial in poetry. In "The Morn-
ing Quatrains" Charles Cotton had preceded Swift with "The
slick-fac'd school-boy satchel takes,/ And with slow pace
THE SIN OF WIT 15
small riddance makes" (65-66). Robert Blair followed with a
less memorable version: "The school-boy, with his satchel
in his hand" ("The Grave," 58). Horace had written it as
"Laevo suspensi loculos tabulamque lacerto" (S. 1.6.74).
It is best known in the blank verse of Shakespeare's As You
Like It, where Jaques makes it "And then the whining school-
boy, with his satchel" (II,vii,145).
Thus, in "A Description of the Morning" the final line
comes out of poetic tradition. It seems admirable and memor-
able in a way not characteristic of the rest of the poem or of
Swift's poetry in general. Here he has suddenly abandoned his
theme of parody— or at least he has not heightened it as a
final line requires. In other poems, including some of his
most accomplished ones, it is the final line, rushing the read-
er back to earth with a somersault, that brings the whole effect
of parody and wit. In this poem, written with Addison at hand,
Swift breaks almost entirely, but not quite, from the tradition
he had tried to follow in his "Pindaric" odes. He had already
written his wonderful burlesque of Ovid; but even "Baucis
and Philemon" lacks the audacity of "The Place of the
Damn'd," "The Day of Judgement," "The Legion Club,"
and "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift."
"A Description of the Morning" is in itself a good poem
that does not wither under close scrutiny. It is, moreover, the
best example of Swift's poetry in an important state of trans-
formation. It already shows the mark of the sin of wit.
"ON POETRY: A RAPSODY"
Written almost a quarter of a century later than the "Morn-
ing," "On Poetry: A Rapsody" is representative of Swift's
most mature and sustained satire. It is one of his chief claims
to the title of poet, and is a good introduction to the prosody,
diction, and imagery of his most highly accomplished verse.
To Goldsmith, in The Beauties of English Poesy, it seems
one of the best versified poems in our language, and the
most masterly production of its author." It is Swift's own
Art of Poetry, "Essay on Criticism," and Dunciad combined.
16 HE DEALT IN RHIME
Craik says in his Life of Swift that "Pope's highest efforts
seem weak and almost tame" when compared with "On Poetry:
A Rapsody," which "stands side by side with Pope's Epistle
to Augustus, and transcends the latter in its force of sweep-
ing sarcasm." Swift's satire was so powerful, and his polit-
ical allusions were so vexing in high places, that after the
poem was published, at the end of 1733, his London publisher
and the unfortunate Mrs. Barber, who had brought the poem from
Dublin, were both imprisoned for a year. Walpole, who had
been satirized in a passage beginning "Now sing the Minister
of State," issued a warrant for arrest of the author; but when
he was told that an army of ten thousand men would be re-
quired to lay hands on the Dean in Dublin, he withdrew the
order. The poem was considered subversive and dangerous to
the welfare of the state. Its title, ironically subheaded "A
Kapsody," is obviously intended to vex and mock.
There are three main divisions in the poem. First, there is
Swift's cynical advice to would-be poets (1-232); next, liter-
ary critics and all the inhabitants of Grubstreet ("jobbers in
the poet's art") receive a trouncing (233-404); and finally
there is the ironical praise, sneering at Monarch and Minister
of State, that annoyed Walpole (405-494). In general the lines
are remarkably clear and brisk-moving. They do not, like some
of the lines of The Dunciad, cause the reader to nod, stretch,
yawn, and doze along with Pope's heroes; nor do they require
an encyclopedic gloss like that appended to the longer poem.
Writing to Pope about The Dunciad, Swift had remarked: "How
it passes in Dublin, I know not yet, but I am sure it will be
a great disadvantage to the poem, that the persons and facts
will not be understood till an explanation comes out, and a
very full one." Now, working with material similar to Pope's,
he was allusive but almost never obscure.
Posing as "an old experienc'd sinner" instructing a laur-
eate-in-the-making, Swift is mild and playful at first. He pre-
sents a formula for composition of dull poetry:
Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline;
Be mindful, when invention fails,
To scratch your head, and bite your nails.
THE SIN OF WIT 17
Your poem finish'd, next your care
Is needful, to transcribe it fair.
In modern wit all printed trash, is
Set off with num'rous breaks and dashes
To statesmen wou'd you give a wipe,
You print it in Italick Type.
When letters are in vulgar shapes,
*Tis ten to one the wit escapes:
But when in CAPITALS exprest,
The dullest reader smoaks a jest:
Or else perhaps he may invent
A better than the poet meant,
As learned commentators view
In Homer more than Homer knew.
Swift assures his "young beginner" that this first attempt
at poetry will be abused by all the critics. He can, however,
line a trunk with his poem and try again a second time and a
But first with care employ your thoughts,
Where criticks mark'd your former faults:
The trivial turns, the borrow' d wit,
The similes that nothing fit;
The cant which ev'ry fool repeats,
Town-jests, and coffee-house conceits;
Descriptions tedious, flat and dry,
And introduc'd the Lord knows why. . .
Or oft when epithets you link,
In gaping lines to fill a chink;
Like stepping stones to save a stride,
In streets where kennels are too wide:
Or like a heel-piece to support
A cripple with one foot too short:
Or like a bridge that joins a marish
To moorlands of a diff'rent parish.
So have I seen ill-coupled hounds,
Drag diff'rent ways in miry grounds.
So geographers in Afric-maps
18 HE DEALT IN RHIME
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o'er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
Swift is almost at his best in this parody of poetic epithets,
where his congregation of ineptitudes— stepping-stones, a
cripple's heel-piece, a bridge, hounds, and elephants on a
map— have the sound of many a poet's serious and sad attempt
at brilliant figures of speech. Though he remains always level-
voiced, like the disillusioned "old experienc'd sinner" he
professes to be, his irony becomes sharp and his wit becomes
merciless as the poem continues. It is exactly because the
tone is so constantly level and chilly that "On Poetry: A Rap-
sody" seemed unbearably insulting to Walpole and the others
The second division of the "Rapsody" is, like The Dunciad,
a personal attack upon certain poets and critics. Both Pope
and Swift assumed a kind of critical infallibility, at the same
time scorning such an assumption in other writers. Moreover,
they both felt contempt for all "jobbers in the poet's art"
who depended upon publication for their bread and butter. In
Swift this contempt was unreasonable; but in Pope it was in-
defensible, because his livelihood, like that of the "jobbers,"
in part depended upon successful publication.
Advising his "young beginner" of the tricks of the critic's
trade, Swift makes side-remarks about Rymer, Dennis, Dryden,
Cibber, Flecknoe, Howard, Blackmore, Grimston, Welsted,
Concannen and Smythe. These are, for the most part, names
with which Pope had played. Indeed, in this section of Swift's
poem there is the footnote: "Vide The Treatise on the Pro-
found, and Mr. Pope's Dunciad.* 1 But Swift is not imitative
here. Whereas The Dunciad is a memorial to dullness, ignor-
ance, and universal darkness, "On Poetry: A Rapsody" is
witty and bright. It is distinguished by clever, easy general-
izations of a kind that cannot be found in The Dunciad:
Hobbes clearly proves that ev'ry creature
Lives in a state of war by nature.
The greater for the smaller watch,
THE SIN OF WIT 19
But meddle seldom with their match.
A whale of moderate size will draw
A shole of herrings down his maw.
A fox with geese his belly crams;
A wolf destroys a thousand lambs.
But search among the rhiming race,
The brave are worried by the base.
If, on Parnassus' top you sit,
You rarely bite, are always bit:
Each poet of inferior size
On you shall rail and criticize;
And strive to tear you limb from limb,
While others do as much for him.
This passage has the same joining of felicity and cynicism to
be found in the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. In "Verses upon
the Death of Dr. Swift" the text is taken from La Rochefou-
cauld himself. Here it is Hobbes whose philosophy is adapted
to a brilliant description of the biting that is habitual among
"the rhiming race." There is simple effectiveness in the con-
sistent figure of speech that contrasts the poet with the whale,
herrings, fox, and wolf; it was just such a figure of speech
that Swift had recommended by implication in his parody of
jumbled epithets, earlier in the poem. If the sixteen lines of
this passage seem too simple and easy to be great poetry, it
must be remembered that the appearance of easiness had been
cultivated and perfected for over a quarter of a century. In
Swift's early odes there were the complications, obscurities,
and flights that are absent here; but there was pretty certainly
no great poetry in the early odes.
The best-known lines from the poem, and perhaps the only
lines by Swift that have become common property in recitation
books and collections of old saws, are those that describe the
hierarchies of small critics. They are lines so familiar that
they are usually disassociated from Swift's name. Miss Mar-
jorie Nicolson suggests that they are borrowed from the micro-
scopical literature of the period, in which fleas and lice were
fashionable subjects for poetry:
20 HE DEALT IN RHIME
The vermin only teaze and pinch
Their foes superior by an inch.
So, nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller yet to bite 'ein,
And so proceed ad infinitum:
Thus ev'ry poet in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind . . .
In its final division "On Poetry: A Rapsody" turns to pure
burlesque. Swift had called court-poetry a prostitution of the
Muse's name and had censured the laureate Cibber for his
"annual birth-day strains." Now he produces two court-poems
of his own, of a kind bold enough to warrant his arrest. For
thirty lines he describes the royal family in language that is
full of irony. To Professor Quintana this passage seems as
intense as anything in Byron's Vision of Judgment. It makes
George II "the conqu'ring hero" and his royal consort the
"perfect goddess born and bred." Adulatory phrases expected
of a lackey laureate become simpering and ridiculous in
The remnant of the royal blood,
Comes pouring on me like a flood.
Bright goddesses, in number five;
Duke William, sweetest prince alive.
In twenty-four succeeding lines Sir Robert Waipole is extrav-
agantly praised for the virtues he had never had:
In all affairs thou sole director,
Of wit and learning chief protector;
Tho' small the time thou hast to spare,
The Church is thy peculiar care.
Remarkably sustained through hundreds of lines, the poem
terminates humorously in a cluster of dashes, italics, aster-
isks, and Latin footnotes.
THE SIN OF WIT 21
CRAFTSMANSHIP IN THE POEMS
Through the irony, parody, and satire of his "Rapsody"
and similar works, Swift stated his poetic credo. He thought he
was a judge of good poetry: proof of that lies in his contempt-
uous and critical parodies of poetry he knew was bad. But he
was not always contemptuous. He took the time to write
letters of advice to would-be poets he had never seen, and he
read through his friends' verses, meticulously noting down
their slips and stumblings. When, for example, he was an old
man and Pope a poet of reputation, he wrote in detail to point
out, after expressing general admiration, the weaknesses in
Pope's epitaph on Gay: "The beginning of the last line, 'strik-
ing their aching bosoms.' Those two participles come so near,
and sounding so like, I could wish them altered, if it might
be easily done." Pope made the alteration, on this advice,
with a new word for "aching," though his "pensive bosoms"
seems no real improvement.
In all poetry Swift was conscious of phonetic effects and
the relation of meter to meaning. In his "Description of a
City Shower," to choose from a familiar poem, the jerky, re-
peated i's in the excellent line "Brisk Susan whips her linen
from the rope" suggest the hurried action of clothes being
snatched from a clothesline. And in his satirical "Directions
for a Birth-day Song" he advises court-poets that "Hard, tough
cramp, gutt'rall, harsh, stiff names" like Hesse Darmstadt
and Guelph are unsuited to adulatory verse, whereas the name
"Caroline" is itself a kind of music. Though his purpose is
chiefly satirical, his rhymed analysis of the phonetics in
"Caroline" shows his consciousness of the subject:
Three syllables did never meet
So soft, so sliding, and so sweet.
Nine other tuneful words like that
Would prove ev'n Homer's numbers flat.
Behold three beauteous vowels stand
With bridegroom liquids hand in hand,
22 HE DEALT IN RHIME
In concord here for ever fixt,
No jarring consonant betwixt.
In the turgid, early odes, alliteration, assonance, and other
sound-combinations are painfully deliberate. Such a desper-
ately versified line as "CHIEF CHERub, and CHIEF lamp of
that SACred SEVen," from the ode to Dr. Sancroft, begins un-
mistakably with a series of sneezes. Just such an effect might
have been sought in later, more mature work, but not to grace
a solemn ode. Like the following excerpts, it would have
suited the mood of a humorous ballad or an angry lampoon:
Said to the PIPpin, PLUMP, and PRIM
("On the Words-Brother Protestant," 13)
Not BEGgar's BRAT, on BULK BEgot
("On Poetry: A Rapsody," 33)
They CUDGell'd, and CUFT him, and KICKT him down stairs
("The True English Dean to Be Hanged for a Rape," 16)
All their MADness MAKES ME MERry
("Epistle to a Lady," 164)
Like a BEAU in the BOX, he BOW'D low on each side
("Clever Tom Clinch Going to Be Hanged," 10)
Then GLUTtony, with GREASy PAWS,
Her napkin PINN'D up to her jaws,
WITH WATry CHAPS, and WAGging CHIN
("A Panegyrick on the Dean," 255-257)
I MURder poor MILton
("My Lady's Lamentation," 156)
SIT STILL, and SWALlow down your SPITtle
("On Poetry: A Rapsody," 122)
Swift's versification is not always so eager to show the
tricks it can do. The contemplative lines of "Verses on the
Death of Dr. Swift" do not often hiss like "Sit still and swal-
low down your spittle." In the glowing lines of the verses to
Stella there are combinations of sound and rhythm that occa-
sionally seem almost like Donne's or Marvell's. When he is
THE SIN OF WIT 23
not trying to scarify, Swift's couplets-out of their context-
can be as deceptively simple as Mother Goose rhymes or
little songs by Herrick, or as smooth as expert limericks:
Through candle-light she view'd the wine,
To see that ev'ry glass was fine.
("Stella at Wood-Park," 19-20)
To cry the bread was stale, and mutter
Complaints against the royal butter.
Whilst Lady Charlotte, like a stroller,
Sits mounted on the garden roller.
("Richmond-Lodge and Marble-Hill,"
Last night was so extremely fine,
The ladies walk'd till after nine.
("Cadenus and Vanessa," 326-327)
If these charming couplets were to be printed without iden-
tification, even the admirers of Swift would probably not name
him at once as the author. By persons supposed to have read
him, Jonathan Swift has so often been airily dismissed as a
versifier limited to octosyllabic jingles on angry or uncom-
fortable subjects, that it is important to make a point of the
variety in his poetry. Variety is there— in his odes, heroic
couplets, quatrains, ballads, adaptations and translations
from Latin, vers d'occasion, parodies, narratives, street ven-
dors' cries, riddles, and experiments with rhyme and length
of line. It was characteristic of him in both his poetry and
prose to experiment, mimic, assume a foreign style, and write
under pretense of not being Swift.
He could write headlong, ragged doggerel like that of John
Skelton two centuries earlier:
Hail fellow, well met,
All dirty and wet:
Find out, if you can,
Whose master, whose man;
Who makes the best figure,
The Dean or the digger;
24 HE DEALT IN RHIME
And which is the best
At cracking a jest.
("My Lady's Lamentation," 165-172)
Or he could pretend to a style almost Shakespearean:
In dagger-contests, and th' artillery of words,
(For swords are madmen's tongues, and tongues are
madmen's swords) . . .
("Ode to Dr. William Sancroft," 13-14)
Still a third fragment, written in his sixty-sixth year, does
not have the sound of any other poetry by him:
I walk before no man, a hawk in his fist,
Nor am I a brilliant, whenever I list.
Here is his favorite pattern of four stresses, but in a long
line; an uncharacteristic sharply-marked caesura divides the
lines; and the curiously obscure imagery might be Romantic,
perhaps modern. The imagery might well be obscure, as much
so as that in Kubla Khan: for, like a proper Romantic poet,
Swift dreamed the couplet. Under two illegible lines on the
blank page of a book, he wrote— in delectable mock-serious-
ness: "I waked at two this morning with the two above lines
in my head, which I had made in my sleep, and I wrote them
down in the dark, lest I should forget them. But as the orig-
inal words being writ in the dark, may possibly be mistaken
by a careless or unskilful transcriber, I shall give a fairer
copy, that two such precious lines may not be lost to pos-
Overshadowing all this diversity, however, is Swift's almost
constant mood of parody in his poetry. And, of course, the
great preponderance of it is written in octosyllabic couplets.
It was this verse-form that Pope naturally appropriated for
his "Seventh Epistle of the First Book of Horace, Imitated
in the Manner of Dr. Swift" and that Goldsmith used for his
"New Simile, in the Manner of Swift." The octosyllabic iambic
couplet, which Samuel Butler passed along to Swift, is admir-
ably suited to humorous or satiric verse. It is not encumbered
by length, and half of its syllables carry a stress of voice, so
THE SIN OP WIT 25
that it can rattle, sputter, snicker, and curse in a way unat-
tained in longer, more dignified, and more elegant lines. But
because it can reproduce the sound of natural, simple speech
and song, it has been used not only for satire and impreca-
tion, but for some of the loveliest lyrics of Lodge, Jonson,
Herrick, Lovelace, and Marvell.
In Samuel Butler's hands this four-stress verse had irreg-
ularity but little variety. And his two- and three-syllable
rhymes, like "laden"/"Madam," "at a rate* '/"adequate,"
and "sisters'V'whiskers," were deliberately crude. Swift
borrowed multi-syllabic rhyming for his lampoons and trifles,
but his accent, as in "bitter at" / "illiterate," usually falls
where it would in normal speech. A comparison of his style
with that of Butler will show how he improved upon his bor-
From Butler's HUDIBRAS
But no beast ever was so slight
For Man, as for his God, to fight.
They have more wit, alas! and know
Themselves and us better than so.
But we, we onely do infuse
The rage in them like boute-feus.
'Tis our example that instills
In them th' infection of our ills.
For as some late philosophers
Have well observed, beasts that converse
With Man, take after him, as hogs
Get pigs all th' year, and bitches dogs.
From Swift's BEASTS CONFESSION
Creatures of ev'ry kind but ours
Well comprehend their nat'ral pow'rs;
While we, whom reason ought to sway,
Mistake our talents ev'ry day:
The ass was never known so stupid
To act the part of Tray, or Cupid;
26 HE DEALT IN RHIME
Nor leaps upon his master's lap,
There to be stroak'd and fed with pap;
As Aesop would the world perswade;
He better understands his trade:
Nor comes, whene'er his lady whistles;
But, carries loads, and feeds on thistles.
The four-stress verse for Swift is sometimes brisk and hard-
riding, sometimes flexible and swirling, and sometimes cold
and plain. It most often shows itself in iambic couplets. But
it appears in quatrains for "The Progress of Beauty"; in
triplets, which he elsewhere deplored, for verses "To the Earl
of Peterborow"; and in alternation with three-stress lines for
"Advice to the Grub-Street Verse Writers." In "The Grand
Question Debated" the four stresses are spread out among
anapests; and in "The Legion Club," in which the intention
is vilification and violence, the line begins with a stress,
like the sound of a whip striking a table.
Byron once wrote enviously that Swift "beats us all hollow,
his rhymes are wonderful." In Don J uan— notorious for its un-
expected rhymes -Byron is indeed seldom more inventive than
Swift in such a poem as "Directions for a Birth-day Song,"
with its "ferks his"/"Xerxes," "spoke all"/"local," "tri-
dent"/"ride in't," and "Willy put"/"Lilliput." Even though
he always tipped his verse with rhyme, sometimes disyllabic
or trisyllabic, Swift did not see an enemy in unrhymed poetry.
"As to your blank verse," he advised a correspondent, "it
has too often fallen into ... vile hands of late. One Thomson,
a Scotchman, has succeeded the best in that way, in four
poems he has writ on the four seasons, yet I am not overfond
of them, because they are all description, and nothing is do-
ing, whereas Milton engages me in actions of the highest im-
portance..." Swift's objection to The Seasons is not based
on any aversion to blank verse.
But he did object impatiently to rhymes that offended his
ear. When he wrote to Pope about the translation of Homer,
it was to express annoyance "at some bad rhymes and trip-
lets..." And in his copy of Dr. James Gibbs's paraphrase of
THE SIN OF WIT 27
the Psalms, he scribbled disdainful comments alongside tone-
deaf rhymes like "pride"/"destroy'd" and "more"/"pow'r."
For the first he wrote, "Pronounce it like the Scotch,'* and
for the second, "Pronounce this like my lady's woman."
Though it had less foundation than his dislike for ugly, in-
exact rhyme, his hatred for triple rhyme was almost an obses-
sion. Perhaps, as Lord Orrery believed, there was an exterior
reason for Swift's hatred— a reason bound up in personalities
and not in mere versification. It occurred to Orrery that it was
not so much a matter of prejudice against the practice itself,
as against certain poets: "Mr. Dryden," he noted, "abounds
in triplets..." and "Mr. Waller. .. generally reserved the
nicest point of wit to his triplicate line . . ."
Something must now be said about diction, though Herbert
Davis's excellent analysis of the diction in Swift's prose
applies equally well to the poetry. As Mr. Davis makes clear,
Swift was characteristically concise in all his writings, with
a conciseness that has defied imitation.
Swift's diction in his poems seems for the most part in-
tended to be spoken and conversational rather than sung or
declaimed. For a poet like Chaucer this speaking voice is
almost tender; for Swift it is generally witty, occasionally
didactic, and now and then indignant. Unless it is assisting
in parody, the vocabulary is natural and easy. Though Dr.
Johnson professed indifference to the poetry, he and his
assistants set down samples of it on almost every page of
his Dictionary to show the use of "charms" and "chatter,"
"decorum," "glibber," "goody," "gracefulness," "iron-
ically," "night-cap," "poetical," "satirick," "spittle," and
words equally various. "Blab," "huddle," "jerk," "jog,"
"jug," "waddle," and "wag," however inelegant they may
be, are not too easy-going for poetry: in Dr. Johnson's Dic-
tionary Swift shares the authority for their use with Shakes-
peare and Milton. Swift's dictum of "proper words in proper
places" did not exclude "clitter-clatter," "hoddy-doddy,"
"ninny," "noddle," and "tattle" from his poetry.
In the verses called "Apollo's Edict" Swift pokes fun at
tired-out phrases like "lips of coral," "teeth of pearl,"
28 HE DEALT IN RHIME
"deep yet clear," and "halcyon days," that are still in the
running after two hundred years. When he appropriated such
cliches for his own poetry, it was generally with parody in
mind. He did not believe in pretending to find virtues in the
dead diction of an obscure, uninspired poem. He knew what
to do with it, as he demonstrates brilliantly in his verses
"On Burning a Dull Poem":
The cold conceits, the chilling thoughts,
Went down like stupifying draughts:
I found my head began to swim,
A numbness crept through ev'ry limb:
In haste, with imprecations dire,
I threw the volume in the fire:
When, who could think, tho* cold as ice,
It burnt to ashes in a trice.
How could I more enhance its fame?
Though born in snow, it dy'd in flame.
It would be strange if there were no images, allegories,
metaphors, puns, and symbols in the poetry of Jonathan Swift;
for they are brilliant in his prose, as the following verbal
feats, the first from A Tale of a Tub and the second from
Gulliver's Travels, can demonstrate:
Is not religion a cloak, honesty a pair of shoes, worn out
in the dirt, self-love a surtout, vanity a shirt, and con-
science a pair of breeches?
For instance, they can decypher a close-stool to signify
a privy-council; a flock of geese, a senate; a lame dog,
an invader; the plague, a standing army; a buzzard, a min-
ister; the gout, a high priest; a gibbet, a secretary of
state; a chamber pot, a committee of grandees; a sieve,
a court lady; a broom, a revolution; a mouse-trap, an em-
ployment; a bottomless pit, the treasury; a sink, a court;
a cap and bells, a favourite; a broken reed, a court of
justice; an empty tun, a general; a running sore, the ad-
THE SIN OP WIT 29
As they stand, these two lists of symbols have the appearance
of notes for poems on religion and the state. The first, indeed,
might be read like this:
Is not religion a cloak,
Honesty a pair of shoes,
Worn out in the dirt,
Self-love a surtout,
Vanity a shirt,
And conscience a pair of breeches?
Comparison, either explicit or vague, is one of the bases
for all poetry; but when Swift builds upon a simile it is, rather
than a lovely woman's resemblance to a sweet-scented rose
or a teardrop's resemblance to a little world, apt to be one of
intentionally un-"poetic" irony, paradox, and wit. The inno-
cent reader who thinks of poetry as a silken grab-bag of meta-
phors from which posies, bonbons, and silver do-dads may be
drawn, is likely to reach into a poem by Swift and draw out a
spitball or a tarantula. Classical embellishments, for example,
when they appear in his poetry, are often surprisingly intro-
Ovid had warn'd her to beware,
Of stroling gods, whose usual trade is,
Under pretence of taking air,
To pick up sublunary ladies.
("Apollo Outwitted," 21-24)
Here poor Pomona sits on thorns:
And there neglected Flora settles
Her bum upon a bed of nettles.
("The Dean's Reasons," 92-94)
There Cerberus lay watching in his den,
(He had not seen a hare the Lord knows when) . . .
("On Mr. Pulteney," 25-26)
When first Diana leaves her bed
Vapors and steams her looks disgrace,
A frouzy dirty colour'd red
Sits on her cloudy wrinckled face . . .
("The Progress of Beauty," 1-4)
30 HE DEALT IN RHIME
In the absurd or rude context Ovid's gods, Pomona and Flora,
Cerberus, and Diana are divested of their classical dignity
in order to create a new relationship and meaning.
When Swift uses this device in reverse, it is to turn a dig-
nified subject into satire, to singe a pompous dunce, or to
scorch a political enemy. "The Progress of Poetry, " a sober
subject in other writers' hands, is built upon the analogy be-
tween a prosperous poet and a goose that has grown too fat
to fly and sing. "On Poetry: A Rapsody" compares a hard-
labored poem to the chicken that requires a month to fatten
but is devoured and forgotten in a few minutes. In other poems
intended to vex, instruct, or amuse, the barnyard contributes
still further similes in a frustrated hen, a flooded stable, a
skinny cow, and a larva in a meal-bin. Most famous of all in
the poetry are the ass, swine, and goat of "The Beasts Con-
Whatever else he may be, Swift is not a rural or "folksy"
writer. Instead, as in Chaucer's story of Chauntecleer and
Dame Pertelote, who discuss Boethius in the henhouse, there
is almost a sophistication in the rude buffeting of anti-"sub-
lime" barnyard associations in a new context. Perhaps he
leads chickens, cows, horses, and pigs into his verse in order
to laugh at the growing literature concerned with the Happy
Beast. Poets like Thomson and Pope had joined Locke to
say that animals have powers of reason, opposing other poets
like Young who held to Descartes' conception of animals as
mere automata. In depicting men as crass, unreasoning Ya-
hoos and animals as noble Houyhnhnms, Swift turns the whole
argument into absurdity. His "Beasts Confession," pushing
the Lockean theory to its wildest extreme, concludes with
the casual observation that
now and then
Beasts may degen'rate into men.
he my the animal for Swift is almost never a matter of ante-
lopes, unicorns, tigers, and fabulous giraffes popular in me-
dieval "bestiaries." One of the most memorable passages in
The Battle of the Books is that which likens a certain kind
THE SIN OP WIT 31
of wit to skimmed milk for the hogs. Elsewhere in his prose
the best example of this effect is in the delineation of the
Houyhnhnms, also drawn from the barnyard, but elevated
above it and even above the barnyard that is called polite
It will be remembered that those admirable horses, the
Houyhnhnms, represent Swift's idea of reasonable, uncor-
rupted goodness in poetry, as in every endeavor of life. Like
Swift himself, the Houyhnhnms express themselves with
"justness" and "exactness." They are, however, ideal
creatures and create ideal poetry that is probably not very
lively. For unlike Swift the Houyhnhnms are not blessed by
humor and the sin of wit: "In poetry they must be allowed to
excel all other mortals; wherein the justness of their similes,
and the minuteness, as well as the exactness of their de-
scriptions, are indeed inimitable."
HUMOUR, AND MIRTH, HAD PLACE
IN ALL HE WRIT
SWIFT'S IDEA OF HUMOR
"I have observed," Lord Bathurst wrote to Jonathan Swift
on April 19, 1731, "that in comedy, the best actor plays the
part of a droll, while some scrub rogue is made the hero, or
fine gentleman. So, in this farce of life, wise men pass their
time in mirth, while fools only are serious. Adieu. Continue
to be merry and wise; but never turn serious, or cunning."
On this letter Swift superscribed the words: "It is too late
for me to turn serious now."
It was too late for him to strike humor and mirth from The
Battle of the Boohs, A Tale of a Tub, The Drapier's Letters,
Gulliver's Travels, and the Miscellanies; too late for him to
make them the wholly grave and didactic works they might
have been. He was, in 1731, writing of his own death in a
humorous vein, commenting on envy, friendship, the life of
Man, and his own situation in verses that are a masterly elab-
oration of the theme, "It is too late for me to turn serious now."
THE SIN OF WIT 33
Swift's idea of humor remained little changed throughout
his life, and on several occasions, in verse and prose, he set
down definitions, differentiating humor from its sister, wit.
The Author's Apology for A Tale of a Tub concludes with the
observation that humor is the "most agreeable" gift of human
nature. More than thirty years later almost the same phrases
appear in the Irish Intelligencer, No. Ill, 1728: " . . .humour,
which in its perfection is allowed to be much preferable to wit,
if it be not rather the most useful, and agreeable species of
it..." Under the title of "A Vindication of Mr. Gay, and the
Beggar's Opera" this essay from the Intelligencer is a defense
of that talent so delightful to most persons but described as
"low" by contemptuous grim critics. The "low" humor or
comedy exalted by Rabelais in France, Cervantes in Spain,
and "those volumes printed in France, under the name of Le
Theatre Italien," Swift says, is a happy talent natural to
even the simplest schoolboy or apprentice. Though the school-
boy is not, and will very probably never be, a good judge of
poetry, eloquence, and music, he knows almost infallibly
whether a thing is funny or not; and the apprentice requires
neither special cultivation of taste nor any Aristotelian meas-
uring rod to feel instinctively that he must slap his thigh and
bellow with laughter, lie on the floor and kick with joy, or,
the humor failing, draw a long face. On its most artistic level,
in the literature of The Beggar's Opera, Gargantua and Panta-
gruel, Don Quixote, or the Commedia dell' Arte, laughter de-
pends heavily upon characterization and the antics of char-
acters who find themselves caught in a humorous situation.
The Beggar's Opera, which Swift is ostensibly vindicating
here against dull or affected critics, is a performance wherein,
he says, the grotesque characters are wholly believable and
move in a framework of recognizable satire. He is explicit in
identifying humor with characterization and in isolating it as
a natural taste that we can observe everywhere, "among com-
mon servants, and the meanest of people, while the very
owners are very often ignorant of the gift they possess."
He is still more explicit in verses "To Mr. Delany," 1718:
What humor is, not all the tribe
Of logick-mongers can describe;
34 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
Here, onely Nature acts her part,
Unhelpt by practice, books, or art.
For wit and humor differ quite,
That gives surprise, and this delight:
Humor is odd, grotesque, and wild,
Onely by affectation spoild,
Tis never by invention got,
Men have it when they know it not.
Though the Elizabethan "humors" of personification were
going out of fashion in the eighteenth century, humor itself
was a literary quality upon which the English prided them-
selves, calling it native to their country. For them it was
conversation or characterization that was natural, familiar,
individual, and delightful. Dryden, in the Epilogue to The
Wild Gallant, Revived, 1667, called humor "that which every
day we meet"; Temple's "Of Poetry," 1690, described it as "a
picture of a particular life"; and Congreve, in "Concerning
Humour in Comedy," 1696, wrote: "I take it to be a singular
and unavoidable manner of doing or saying anything peculiar
and natural to one man only, by which his speech and actions
are distinguished from those of other men." Such points of
view very likely helped to form Swift's idea of an odd, native
humor that we express even when we "know it not." He is so
often described as a tormented genius whose skepticism be-
came madness, that it is hard to remember he liked a joke
better than most geniuses and that he loved la bagatelle,
even seeking to use laughter as a weapon of reform. It was
mirth for its own sake when he wrote "A Meditation upon a
Broom-Stick, " rhymed "sorcery" with "horse awry," amused
Stella with his "little language," devised riddles in rhyme to
tease his friends, and turned the commonplace into funny
verse. There is an underlying and over-all spirit of fun in
Swift. When little Marjory Fleming confided to her Journal
that "Doctor Swift's works are very funny & amusing & I get
some by hart," she was at least as discerning as her elders
to whom Swift's works seemed heartless.
THE SIN OF WIT 35
ACTING IN CHARACTER
What there is to grin at in Swift's poetry often arises from
characterization through monologue and dialogue ingeniously
adapted to rhyme. His coolcmaids, noblemen, idle wives,
clergymen, bookdealers, and politicians speak unmistakably
in voices of their own. They ramble or superciliously con-
descend, gabble, or protest in turn.
We have a charming instance of Swift's ability with humor-
ous monologue: almost as entertaining asLaetitia Pilkington's
account of his running up one flight of stairs and down another
for exercise, is her description of his "acting in character":
The bottle and glasses being taken away, the Dean
set about making the coffee; but the fire scorching
his hand, he called to me to reach him his glove,
and changing the coffee-pot to his left-hand, held out
his right one, ordered me to put the glove on it,
which accordingly I did; when taking up part of his
gown to fan himself with, and acting in character of
a prudish lady, he said, "Well, I do not know what
to think; women may be honest that do such things,
but, for my part, I never could bear to touch any
man's flesh— except my husband's," whom perhaps,
says he, she wished at the devil.
In prose dialogue Swift is best represented by his Polite
Conversation, which like his most characteristic work in both
prose and poetry is not what it purports to be. No model and
handbook of witty repartee, it mercilessly records the heavy-
handed jests and horseplay, the warmed-over cynicism and
tattle of Persons of Quality. Miss Notable, whose retorts are
immediate and brisk, is the heroine of the piece; and she has
the last word. At three in the morning when the company rises
from the game of quadrille, Tom Neverout chooses from among
the flowers of wit and language to remark, "Faith, I'm for
Bedfordshire," and addresses Miss Notable with his unflag-
36 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
ging insolence: "Miss, I hope you'll dream of your sweet-
heart." "Oh, no doubt of it," says she: "I believe I shan't
be able to sleep for dreaming of him." George Saintsbury con-
fessed in The Peace of the Augustans that "One remains at
the feet of Miss Notable; and is almost ashamed to babble
about the idol."
Even with the husks of her cliches lying about her, "Miss"
charms the reader; and in rhyme Mrs. Frances Harris and Mary
the Coolcmaid share her charm. Their doggerel depicts them
clearly; they might have come this morning from the company
of Fielding's Mrs. Honour, Mrs. Slipslop, and Molly Seagrim.
They are drawn so truly that nymphs and dryads, dancing in
flowery meadows, seem a plague in poetry indeed; and are not
so prepossessing as this distressed waiting-woman and in-
dignant cookraaid. "Lord! I thought I should have sunk out-
right," "Pugh, said I," and "faith and troth!" they exclaim.
To them the household details of life are all-important: they
cannot speak without telling in specific detail how money is
kept "in my pocket ty'd about my middle, next my smock,"
or how a day is remembered because "I was mending ray
master's stocking." And they name names: Lady Betty, Mrs.
Dukes, deaf Dame Wadgar, Lord Dromedary, Sister Marget,
and the Dean. Obligingly, Mrs. Harris attempts to be legally
exact in telling what sum of money she lost and what every-
one said about her misfortune. Like the gentlefolk in Polite
Conversation they appreciate the flavor of a well-tried phrase:
"hardly ... slept a wink" and "I would not give such lang-
uage to a dog..." Like all good folk they gladly throw out
moral observations that "of all things in the world, I hate a
thief," and "I am sure such words does not become a man of
your cloth." Acting in character, providing them with the
fiddle-faddle of homely detail, Swift has them speak humor-
ously and believably.
"To Their Excellencies the Lords Justices of Ireland: The
Humble Petition of Frances Harris, Who Must Starve, and Die
a Maid if It Miscarries," 1701. was written while Swift was
chaplain to Lord Berkeley in Ireland. Mrs. Harris, one of Lady
Berkeley's waiting women, is distressed to tears over losing
her purse with its "seven pound, four shillings and six pence,
THE SIN OP WIT 37
besides farthings, in money and gold":
So next morning we told Whittle, and he fell a swearing;
Then my Dame Wadgar came, and she, you know, is thick
Dame, said I, as loud as I could bawl, do you know what
a loss I have had?
Nay, said she, ray Lord Collway's folks are all very sad,
For ray Lord Dromedary comes a Tuesday without fail;
Pugh! said I, but that's not the business that I ail.
From the valet, who can only curse, to Lord Berkeley him-
self, all the household hears the story. But Mrs. Harris is
seeking sympathy chiefly, for she has dreamed very specifi-
cally that the money is in a rag in a corner of a box belonging
to Mrs. Dukes, whom she approaches on the subject. Mrs.
Dukes blesses herself, roars, and denies having seen the
purse, leaving poor Mrs. Harris as wise as she was before.
Her discourse with her favorite, the chaplain, is even less
happy, for she calls him Parson and asks whether he can
"cast a Nativity, when a body's plunder'd." He is annoyed
and tells her so.
With that, he twisted his girdle at me like a rope, as who
Now you may go hang your self for me, and so went away.
Well; I thought I should have swoon'd: Lord, said I, what
shall I do?
I have lost my money, and I shall lose ray true-love too.
And so Mrs. Harris submits her petition to the Lords Justices
of Ireland, one of whom is her employer, requesting "a share
in next Sunday's collection..." Further, while she is making
requests, she asks for conferment of orders upon the chap-
lain, unless, she casually adds, an even more attractive chap-
lain can be found:
And then your poor petitioner, both night and day,
38 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
Or the chaplain, (for 'tis his trade) as in duty bound, shall
Here Mrs. Harris is wonderfully parenthetical. Mary the
Cookmaid is more direct, more simple-minded, and less at
ease with a pen, more apt to blunder into garbled phrases
like "parsonable man" and "come-rogues." She was Swift's
own cook, towards the end of his life, a robust woman with a
pockmarked face and addressed by him as "Sweetheart."
"Mary the Cook-Maid's Letter to Dr. Sheridan," 1718 -in-
cluded in W.H. Auden's Oxford Book of Light Verse— ia the
best known of the roguish rhymes exchanged in Swift's Irish
circle. Sheridan had been called a goose; in retaliation he
called Swift a knave; to reply, Swift acts in character to be-
come Mary the Cookmaid, praising her master.
He has more goodness in his little finger, than you have
in your whole body,
My master is a parsonable man, and not a spindle-shank'd
Every body knows, that I love to tell truth and shame the
I am but a poor servant, but I think gentle folks should be
Besides, you found fault with our vittles one day that you
I remember it was upon a Tuesday, of all days in the year.
First of all, laughingly, Swift is using Mrs. Harris's voice
and Mary's to express something without seeming to; then
through their voices he suggests vividly their actual pre-
sences, their accusing eyes, their frowns, their fingers grasp-
ing the pen-quill; and third, he has them speak in a rambling
tattle of inventive humor, never for a syllable slipping out of
character. His ear for the wandering cadence of speech and
his eye for funny portraits worked together to create in these,
as in his other verses meant to be giggled at, an odd batch of
THE SIN OF WIT 39
rhymes and rhythms.* When Thomas Hardy tried the same sort
of thing in "The Chapel Organist," "In the Servants* Quar-
ters," and other long-lined monologues and dialogues, he for
once lacked the ingenuity of Swift, of whom William Hazlitt
wrote in appreciation: "He has gone so far as to invent a new
stanza of fourteen and sixteen syllable lines for Mary the
cookmaid to vent her budget of nothings, and for Mrs. Harris
to gossip with the deaf old housekeeper." Other critics regret
that he did not more often find time for this very attractive
kind of doggerel: it proves, they say, that he did not have to
be unpleasant in what he wrote.
There is no more humor in his indulgent pretense of being
a cookmaid than there is in his pretense in rhyme of speaking
for an idle lady of fashion. But, partly because they do not
warm the heart, but rather chill it, Swift's tenser, more biting
lines, in which ladies of quality vent their budgets of nothing,
do not so often find admirers. A society of fashionably dressed,
charmless ladies moves noisily through Swift's writing: they
are the Lady Smart and Lady Answerall of Polite Conversa-
tion; the "tribe of bold, swaggering, rattling ladies" of "A
Letter to a Young Lady on her Marriage"; the Brobdingnagian
maids of honor; the silly recipient of "Verses Wrote in a
Lady's Ivory Table Book"; Phillis in "The Progress of
Love," who would "heave her bosom" in church for "beaux
to see it bare"; the gadabout wife in "The Progress of Mar-
riage," wearing "French brocades and Flanders lace"; and
the smart lady who "calls it witty to be rude" in "The Fur-
niture of a Woman's Mind." They talk and talk and talk; in
"The Journal of a Modern Lady," 1729, Swift describes the
din they raise:
Now voices over voices rise;
While each to be the loudest vies,
They contradict, affirm, dispute,
No single tongue one moment mute;
•Were Swift's long-lined gabbling poems inspired by the High
Church service, which also has long clauses that are gabbled
off hurriedly until they reach a rhythmical and logical pause?
I owe this ingenious suggestion to Professor Gilbert Highet.
40 HUMOUR. AND MIRTH
All mad to speak, and none to hearken,
They set the very lap-dog barking;
Their chattering makes a louder din
Than fish-wives o'er a cup of gin:
Not school-boys at a barring-out,
Rais'd ever such incessant rout:
The jumbling particles of matter
In chaos made not such a clatter:
Far less the rabble roar and rail,
When drunk with sour election ale.
There is not much variety or much that scintillates in what
they have to say: they are descendants of the Earl of Roch-
ester's indefatigable talkers in "Tunbridge Wells" and an-
cestresses of T.S. Eliot's "Doris," who drew the coffin when
she cut the cards and kept talking about it. Swift's card-play-
ing ladies, who spend the night at quadrille, are immortally
represented by the "female friends" in the verses on his
death; in "The Journal of a Modern Lady" they are equally
indefatigable in conversation:
"This morning when the parson came,
"I said I should not win a game.
"This odious chair how came I stuck in't,
"I think I never had good luck in't.
"I'm so uneasy in my stays;
"Your fan, a moment, if you please.
"Stand further girl, or get you gone.
"I always lose when you look "on.
This is, in effect, Polite Conversation in verse, with the de-
light of humor and recognition augmented by rhyme and rhythm.
The tone is shriller when the "glitt'ring dames" are heard in
"Cadenus and Vanessa":
Their clamour 'lighting from their chairs,
Grew louder, all the way up stairs . . .
I'm sorry Mopsa breaks so fast;
THE SIN OF WIT 41
I said her face would never last.
Corinna with that youthful air,
Is thirty, and a bit to spare.
Her fondness for a certain earl
Began, when I was but a girl.
They railly'd next Vanessa's dress:
That gown was made for old Queen Bess.
Dear Madam, let me set your head:
Don't you intend to put on red?
(368-369, 386-391, 396-399)
Eighteenth-century fops with their "soft voice and speech
absurd" are portrayed similarly in "Cadenus and Vanessa"
and elsewhere; but when Swift acted in character, it was the
"incessant rout" of fine ladies that he most outrageously
Humorous characterization of poets, parsons, statesmen,
lawyers, and soldiers is fitted to the pattern of monologue and
dialogue in many of Swift's verses. In "Richmond-Lodge and
Marble-Hill," 1727, there is even a pastoral dialogue between
two houses in the manner of Thomas Hardy's "The Two
Houses," "The Aged Newspaper Soliloquizes," and "Haunt-
ing Fingers," in which musical instruments talk in the night.
Swift's rhymes on poets and parsons were often autobiograph-
ical; but he wrote with distrust and dislike of statesmen in
many verses, best perhaps in "Ireland," from the "Holyhead
Journal," 1727; of lawyers in "The Answer to 'Paulus',"
1728; and of soldiers in "The Grand Question Debated," 1729.
All are described, with an intensity that excludes humor, in an
imitation of Petronius, "On Dreams," 1724:
The statesman rakes the town to find a plot,
And dreams of forfeitures by treason got.
Orphans around his bed the lawyer sees,
And takes the plaintiff's and defendant's fees.
The soldier smiling hears the widows' cries,
And stabs the son before the mother's eyes.
(19-20, 23-24, 15-16)
42 HUMOUR. AND MIRTH
In "The Grand Question Debated," sometimes called "A
Soldier and a Scholar," there is delightful characterization of
a captain as he is imagined by a lady's maid: we first watch
his arrival and then share his conversation at dinner:
See, now comes the Captain all dawb'd with gold lace:
Oh law! the sweet gentleman! look in his face;
And see how he rides like a lord of the land,
With the fine flaming sword that he holds in his hand . . .
"To give a young gentleman right education,
"The Army's the only good school in the nation;
"My school-master cali'd me a dunce and a fool,
"But at cuffs I was always the cock of the school;
"I never cou'd take to my book for the blood o'me,
"And the puppy confess'd, he expected no good o'me.
"He caught me one morning coquetting his wife,
"But he maul'd me, I ne'er was so maul'd in my life;
"So, I took to the road, and what's very odd,
"The first man I robb'd was a parson by G— .
"Now Madam, you'll think it a strange thing to say,
"But, the sight of a book makes me sick to this day.
Read alongside the breathless gabble of fashionable ladies,
this captain's gross, deliberate, egotistic monologue seems
an admirable example of Swift's acting in character. It is
bright humor from a cynic and misanthrope who knew that it
was too late for him to turn serious.
VANESSA, STELLA>AND DAPHNE
Swift's humorous characterization of personal relationships
may best be seen in verses addressed to three women: "Van-
essa," "Stella," and "Daphne." When Swift wrote with
tenderness and affection he wrote, as an honest poet should,
most warily of the artificial phrase, the false-sounding note,
and the extravagance that rings of insincerity. Because roman-
THE SIN OP WIT 43
tic, passionate ecstasy seemed to him a subject for burlesque,
his own tender sentiments were usually expressed quietly in
humorous understatement or hidden in raillery. Much of the
interest in his affectionate verses, therefore, lies in seeing
how expertly he wrote within the constraining bounds he set
Perhaps because it seems almost conventionally tender,
"Cadenus and Vanessa,*' 1713, the longest of all the poems
and least characteristic of the important ones, has sometimes
been considered the height of Swift's accomplishment in
rhyme. When Goldsmith described it as one of the author's
correctest pieces, he explained its good reception; for though
the subject matter itself is somewhat odd, the treatment is
fashionable and elegantly formal with a glossy film of urban-
ity meant to flatter the romantic girl for whom the poem was
written. Esther Vanhomrigh, according to Dr. Johnson, was
"a woman made unhappy by her admiration of wit, and ignomin-
iously distinguished by the name of Vanessa... She was a
young woman fond of literature, whom Decanus the Dean,
called Cadenus by transposition of the letters, took pleasure
in directing and instructing; till, from being proud of his
praise, she grew fond of his person." This is the substance
of the poem itself, in which Swift has the girl finally under-
take to instruct her teacher in matters of love, though with
what success the reader is coyly kept from learning. Within
its elaborate framework of goddesses, cupids, shepherds, har-
nessed doves, and long pleas heard by the Queen of Love,
Vanessa's little story is almost lost in the paper lace of an
unwieldy valentine. Because the talent of Swift lay rather in
the composition of comic valentines touched with genius-
more like Michelangelo's cartoons than the f£tes charapStres
of Watteau— this poem seems written in a borrowed language
at which Swift usually laughed. It is not mock- but pseudo-
classical. Herbert Davis has noted that on another occasion,
perhaps in the same year, Swift wrote a briefer poem in the
same vein: the chaste goddesses and ravished youths of the
verses "To Lord Harley, on his Marriage" are also pseudo-
classical in spirit.
The opening lines of "Cadenus and Vanessa" remind the
44 HUMOUR. AND MIRTH
reader of fanciful songs by an elegant and tiresome poet like
the Countess of Winchilsea:
The shepherds and the nymphs were seen
Pleading before the Cyprian Queen.
The council for the fair began,
Accusing that false creature, Man.
The case being pleaded is to determine whether men or women
are more responsible for the faults of modern love (1-125);
Judge Venus, calling a recess, experiments with a "wondrous"
nymph, Vanessa, who is endowed with male virtues (126-303);
but Vanessa does not attract suitors and is herself disdainful
of society, preferring to read Montaigne (304-464); Cupid fixes
her affection upon her tutor, Cadenus (465-827); and when the
law case is resumed, Venus's decree is against the men, who
were too tasteless to appreciate Vanessa (828-889).
Andreas Capellanus's account of medieval Courts of Love,
adapted to suit the Age of Reason, if such a thing can be
imagined, would probably resemble this poem. Much of its
humor comes from the intrusion of worldly things into a celes-
tial scene, as when the verses of Cowley and Waller are con-
sulted for authority in Heaven. The disparity in age between
the young Vanessa and her somewhat cynical old tutor lends
further amusement. But when he describes the proper educa-
tion for a sensible young woman in a world of fops and quad-
rille, Swift's intention is more serious. Except for a discourse
on "modern love" in lines 21-66 the first characteristically
Swiftian passage is that in which Venus praises Vanessa, the
Offending daughters oft would hear
Vanessa's praise rung in their ear:
Miss Betty, when she does a fault,
Lets fall her knife, or spills the salt,
Will then be by her mother chid,
44 'Tis what Vanessa never did.
THE SIN OF WIT 45
In its courtly setting this homely detail did not please Taine,
for the very reason that it is characteristic of Swift: "Singu-
lie*re facjon d'admirer Vanessa et de lui prouver qu'on l'admire!
Je l'appelle nymphe et la traite en ecoliere." But in these
octosyllabic couplets Swift excels, just as Chaucer excels in
the octosyllabic couplets of even so allegorical a poem as
"The House of Fame," when he is most original, humorous,
homely, and explicit. When "Cadenus and Vanessa" is at its
best , in the fashionable fops' "tattle of the day" and the
ladies' "usual chat," it resembles the verses on Swift's death,
and is very good indeed.
The poem was probably given to Vanessa in 1713, went from
hand to hand, caused scandalized whispers, and was in 1726
published without Swift's consent, causing him some embar-
rassment because of what it revealed. Still more would have
been revealed in complementary verses he suggested to
Vanessa in 1720:
There would be the chapter of Madam going to Ken-
sington; the chapter of the blister; the chapter of the
Colonel going to France; the chapter of the wedding,
with the adventures of the lost key; of the sham; of
the joyful return; two hundred chapters of madness;
the chapter of long walks; the Berkshire surprise;
fifty chapters of little times; the chapter of Chelsea;
the chapter of swallow and cluster; a hundred whole
books of myself, etc.; the chapter of hide and whis-
per; the chapter of who made it so; ray sister's money.
These tantalizing chapters were never written, and by 1723,
when Vanessa died, she had broken with Swift entirely, and
he was sorry he had written "Cadenus and Vanessa"j "It
was," he wrote in the year it was first published, "a task
performed in a frolic among some ladies."
He would not have dismissed so summarily the poems to
Stella, usually addressed to her year by year on her birthdays.
They contain his most gravely musical, most affecting phrases.
When, in 1726, he received news of her serious illness, he
wrote, almost out of control of his emotions, to James Stop-
ford: "Dear Jim, pardon me, I know not what I am saying; but
46 HUMOUR. AND MIRTH
believe me that violent friendship is much more lasting, and
as much engaging, as violent love." But in his poems to
Stella, Swift always knew what he was saying and was never
violent, no matter how great his devotion or how warm the
regard he expressed. In one of the poems he reminded her
that he had never sung of "Cupid's darts," "killing eyes,"
and "bleeding hearts," but that he had been honest and
truthful in his praise of her as his friend. "Truth," he told
her, "shines the brighter, clad in verse." It does shine bright
in delightful verses like those "To Stella, Visiting Me in My
For Stella never learn'd the art,
At proper times to scream and start;
Nor calls up all the house at night,
And swears she saw a thing in white.
Doll never flies to cut her lace,
Or throw cold water in her face,
Because she heard a sudden drum,
Or found an earwig in a plum.
Like phrases from Shakespearean song, the last couplet here
combines rich sound and an impression of bright detail. The
beat of "hearD a suDDen Drum" is as capably handled as are
the blunted vowels that follow in "OR FOUND an EARwig in a
PLUM." These two unpretentious lines are hardly inferior to
those by Herrick that Edith Sitwell singles out to praise for
their beauty, remarking on the artful effect of repeated s's,
echoes, and fruit-shapes in the names "pear" and "plum";
So silently they one to th' other come,
As colours steal into the pear or plum.
(Herrick, "Lovers: How They
Come and Part," 5-6)
There would be loss of melody, certainly, if Herrick had
written, in Swift's brisker, shorter lines, something like this:
So silent they together come
As colours steal in pear or plum.
THE SIN OF WIT 47
But there would be only a stuffing of syllables and loss of
directness if Swift, in his poem to Stella, had used Herrick's
length of line:
Because she heard a sudden sound of drum,
Or found an earwig in a bitten plum.
The six lines next quoted, from the same poem to Stella,
beginning with "When on my sickly couch I lay," seem as
musical as the six from Wordsworth beginning "For oft, when
on my couch I lie." Still writing with honesty joined to feel-
ing, and without recourse to song-book language, Swift at-
tains a quality of music in what he says:
When on my sickly couch I lay,
Impatient both of night and day,
Lamenting in unmanly strains,
Call'd ev'ry pow'r to ease my pains,
Then Stella ran to my relief
With chearful face, and inward grief. . .
These lines move with continuous sound; but in lines that
follow, the couplets are closed with barriers that require
suspension of the voice. The quiet phrases of "Now, with a
soft and silent tread" are especially slow because of substi-
tution of a stress, "Now," and the pause that accompanies it:
My sinking spirits now supplies
With cordials in her hands, and eyes.
Now, with a soft and silent tread,
Unheard she moves about my bed.
I see her taste each nauseous draught,
And so obligingly am caught:
I bless the hand from whence they came,
Nor dare distort ray face for shame.
There is stronger praise in the poem, but it is no more lyrical
than in these lines with their undercurrent of emotion. But
however passionate or serious he may feel, there is still in
Swift a wonderful sense of the absurd, as in the very gentle,
48 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
wry couplet last quoted.
Sometimes, in these poems to Stella, Swift is gracefully
complimentary, saying for instance, in "Stella's Birthday,
March 13, 1719," that if it pleased the gods to split her into
two women as lovely as she, he would beg that his worship
for her might also be divided. This courtly conceit seems
honest and convincing in part because the poem opens with
deliberately flat, humorously unromantic lines:
Stella this day is thirty-four,
(We shan't dispute a year or more) . . .
Again, humorously, he compares her to the Angel Inn, so at-
tractive and virtuous that it is popular even when it grows
old and its sign needs paint; like Stella's, it is an "angel's
face, a little crack'd." Or, when she is to go to the country
for her health, he compares her to a famished cow that, sent
to graze, becomes plump and vigorous again. There is an
affectionate, humorous concern that lends to these poems a
warmth and melody. These are qualities that can be felt and
heard even in the pleasant little tribute "To Stella, Who Col-
lected and Transcribed His Poems," 1720:
As when a lofty pile is rais'd,
We never hear the workmen prais'd,
Who bring the lime, or place the stones;
But all admire Inigo Jones:
So if this pile of scatter'd rhymes
Should be approv'd in after-times,
If it both pleases and endures,
The merit and the praise are yours.
Of all these poems the last, "Stella's Birthday, March 13,
1727," written less than a year before her death, best repre-
sents Swift's own reserved kind of love-verse in which he in-
corporated wit, tenderness, grace, and neatness as Andrew
Marveil, for instance, did at his best:
This day, whate'er the fates decree,
Shall still be kept with joy by me:
THE SIN OP WIT 49
This day then, let us not be told,
That you are sick, and I grown old,
Nor think on our approaching ills,
And talk of spectacles and pills;
To morrow will be time enough
To hear such mortifying stuff.
Indeed, "To morrow will be Time enough / To hear such mort-
ifying Stuff" could without alteration conceivably have come
from the side of Marvell's "Had we but World enough, and
Time." Like Marvell, Swift can here be praised for ingenuity,
exactness, and glib freshness of phrase. There is no amuse-
ment from a blunt reminder of Stella's age or from a far-fetched
comparison to an undernourished cow; but the effect is more
certain when spectacles and pills are transformed into sym-
bols (in the manner of the Mirror, Clock, and Smile of W.H.
Auden) for Swift's increasing years and Stella's infirmities.
Harold Williams was perhaps thinking especially of those
lines when he described the poem as "tender and beautiful."
With its "Me, surely me" the conclusion brings a note ex-
tremely personal and hardly "Swiftian":
then, whatever Heav'n intends,
Take pity on your pitying friends;
Nor let your ills affect your mind,
To fancy they can be unkind.
Me, surely me, you ought to spare,
Who gladly would your suff rings share;
Or give ray scrap of life to you,
And think it far beneath your due;
You, to whose care so oft I owe,
That I'm alive to tell you so.
Throughout the years of their relationship Swift wished
Stella to be admired not so much for her beauty, or even for
her devotion, as for her independence and wit. For the very
reason that he loved her, he wilfully circumscribed her free-
dom and kept a jealous guard upon her mind. But he never-
50 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
theless imagined her as the New Woman of the middle class,
like Jane Austen later in the century, whose wit could support
her in conversation with the most learned or elegant gentlemen.
The poems to Stella are the only sort that could conceivably
have been addressed to such a woman as Jane Austen. Any
man with temerity to proffer affectionate rhymes to the author
of Emma would have made certain that they were first of all
humorous, witty, and wise.
Of a very different sort are the many humorous poems Swift
wrote for "Daphne," Lady Acheson, during his long visits at
Market Hill, near Armagh, in the north of Ireland in 1728, 1729,
and 1730. He had known her father, the Right Hon. Philip
Savage, and now made himself disconcertingly at home with
her and her husband, Sir Arthur, who was high sheriff for his
county. Swift rearranged their gardens, punished their ser-
vants, corrected Lady Acheson, and came down to dinner only
when he pleased. After his eight-months-long first visit he
wrote to Pope of his entertainment in the country, where, he
said, he was tutor to his "perfectly well bred" hostess and
wrote "family verses of mirth by way of libels on my Lady."
They were libels composed of banter, pleasantry stuck through
with satire, and the humorous raillery he had commended in
his poem "To Mr. Delany." Conversation at its best, he had
said, combines wit and humor to create the raillery in which
the French excel; it was Voiture, he pointed out, who turned
irony into praise and "first found out the rule / For an oblig-
ing ridicule." Libels and "obliging ridicule" provided an
evening's entertainment for Lady Acheson, her husband, and
their guests: it was an honor to be insulted by the Dean.
In "The Journal of a Modern Lady," 1729, he wickedly de-
scribes the annals of a day in Lady Acheson's life: how she
is awakened at noon to be reminded of last night's losses at
quadrille; takes her tea and cream; is almost dressed by four;
bores the dinner-guests with her stale conversation; gossips
over the evening tea; and plays quadrille again, pausing only
to gobble supper, until the watchman cries: "A frosty morn-
past four a-clock." The card-playing ladies leave at last,
and their hostess,
With empty purse, and aching head,
THE SIN OP WIT 51
Steals to her sleeping spouse to bed.
Those verses are a museum in which details of eighteenth-
century upper-class life are preserved; and they are humorous
verses even when they are least kindly. Later, when Swift
had broken his friendship with Sir Arthur and Lady Acheson,
he wrote of her in prose that has no humor: "She is an abso-
lute Dublin rake, sits up late, loses her money, and goes to
bed sick." While he was still her friend, the Dean of St. Pat-
rick's could banter; no longer her friend, he was stern and
The vivacious verses of "My Lady's Lamentation," 1728,
are even more personal than those of the "Journal"; Swift
makes Lady Acheson describe herself grotesquely in lines
From shoulder to flank
I'm lean and am lank;
My nose, long and thin,
Grows down to ray chin;
My chin will not stay,
But meets it half way;
My fingers, prolix,
Are ten crooked sticks . . .
When my elbows he sees
Held up by my knees,
My arms, like two props,
Supporting my chops,
And just as I handle 'em
Moving all like a pendulum;
He trips up my props,
And down my chin drops,
From my head to my heels,
Like a clock without wheels;
I sink in the spleen,
An useless machine.
52 HUMOUR. AND MIRTH
Phrases swing back and forth like a skeleton on a string until
the rhythm is broken by added syllables in "handle 'em" and
" pendulum," and everything clatters down in a heap, its mo*
Most humorously imaginative of the "comic valentines" for
Lady Acheson is "Death and Daphne, To an Agreeable Young
Lady, but Extremely Lean," 1730, a fable that tells how
Death wishes to mate with Daphne, who herself, somewhat
startlingly, makes the first advance; and how Death hastens
to leave her when he finds her more deathlike than he:
Pluto observing, since the Peace,
The burial article decrease;
And, vext to see affairs miscarry,
Declar'd in council, Death must marry:
Vow'd, he no longer could support
Old batchelors about his court . . .
She, as he came into the room,
Thought him Adonis in his bloom.
And now her heart with pleasure jumps,
She scarce remembers what is trumps.
For, such a shape of skin and bone
Was never seen, except her own . . .
When Death places his finger on Daphne's dry, cold hand, the
"frighted spectre" *s thoughts of marriage freeze. The lady
Swift elsewhere called "perfectly well bred" is here, for the
fun of it, the subject of macabre insult in language of bur-
lesque. Unlike Wordsworth's, whose "heart with pleasure
fills" or poetically "leaps up," Daphne's foolish "heart with
pleasure jumps," as though it were a nervous rabbit.
Even though the chiding poem called "Daphne," 1730, had
previously been included under the heading of Market Hill, it
was not until Williams's edition of the poems that the "ex-
tremely lean" heroine of "Death and Daphne" was identified
in print as Lady Acheson. Until then, Daphne was unaccount-
ably supposed to be the sensation-loving Mrs. Pilkington,
whose portrait by Hone shows a pretty charmer, bosomy and
THE SIN OP WIT 53
far from lean. In his Remarks Lord Orrery does not name her,
but tells how he once heard "Death and Daphne" read, in
Swift's presence, by the lady in question. Unable to appreciate
its raillery, he could not believe the poem pleased her as
much as she insisted, until Swift "burst into a fit of laughter.
'You fancy,' says he, 'that you are very polite, but you are
much mistaken. That lady had rather be a Daphne drawn by
me, than a Sacharissa by any other pencil.'" Still incredulous,
but falling in with the game, Orrery says he whispered to the
lady to flatter her, when he took her hand, that it was indeed
"as dry and cold as lead" as the poem describes. Orrery's
annotation in his copy of the Remarks, now in the library of
Harvard University, does identify Daphne: alongside his ac-
count of her, he has written: "Lady Atchison, wife of Sir
Arthur Atchison. Separated from her husband." Accepting this
notation as authority for what now seems obvious, Williams
places the poem among all the other "family verses of mirth"
from Market Hill.
Sometimes, understandably, Lady Acheson sighed for poetic
prettiness and beribboned flattery that did not accompany her
rude caricatures and comic valentines. In "An Epistle to a
Lady, Who Desired the Author to Make Verses on Her, in the
Heroick Stile," 1733, Swift acts in character to have her plead
for loftier, gentler words:
But, I beg, suspend a while,
That same paultry burlesque stile:
Drop, for once, your constant rule,
Turning «)1 to ridicule . . .
Sing my praise in strain sublime:
Treat me not with doggrel rhime.
But he has a refusal ready for her. His flattery has been spent
on Vanessa, his affection has been addressed to Stella, and
Daphne is to hear only raillery and must be pleased with that:
Thus, I find it by experiment,
54 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
Scolding moves you less than merriment.
I may storm and rage in vain;
It but stupifies your brain.
But, with raillery to nettle,
Set your thoughts upon their mettle:
Gives your imagination scope,
Never lets your mind elope:
Drives out brangling, and contention,
Brings in reason and invention.
For your sake, as well as mine,
I the lofty stile decline.
HARLEY AND SHERIDAN
Poems for other friends, though usually easy and smooth,
capable and adequate, do not have so much to recommend them
as those for Vanessa, Stella, and Daphne. They are all alike,
however, in drawing humor and delight from Swift's acting in
character, just as all his poems of wit are based on surprise
of situation or language. The poems addressed to Harley, Lord
Oxford, borrow some of the urbanity of Horace, whom they
imitate; and in them Swift draws an amusing portrait of him-
self. In "Part of the Seventh Epistle of the First Book of
Horace Imitated," 1713, Harley assumes the role of the patron
Philippus, and Vulteius is Swift. Ruined by the "Dues, pay-
ments, fees, demands and cheats" that accompany his pa-
tron's bounty, he pleads to be restored to his simple way of
living. He describes himself in this poem as he was first seen
at a bookstall by Harley, who insisted upon befriending him.
It is a portrait of himself as he thought, or hoped, he im-
pressed others, with "some humour in his face," "an easy,
careless mien," and an inclination to do what he pleased.
"An Imitation of the Sixth Satire of the Second Book of
Horace," 1714, to which Pope made additions, is also con-
cerned with Harley's patronage but has most to say about
THE SIN OP WIT 55
Swift himself. Except for the noisy, name-calling passages
that Addison deleted from "Baucis and Philemon" this is the
first of the poems in which Swift, for humorous effect, has
people talking interruptedly in clamorous speeches, like bees
"humming in my ears." It begins with a nostalgic picture of
his desire for a handsome house in the country and comfort-
able means to maintain it— and then contrasts this with the
hectic "jostle" of the life at court. Among the most enter-
taining lines, reminiscent of noblemen's gossip recorded by
Proust, are those that set down the great Harley's trivial
'Tis (let me see) three years and more,
(October next, it will be four)
Since Harley bid tne first attend,
And chose me for an humble friend:
Would take me in his coach to chat,
And question me of this and that;
As, "What's a-clock?'* And, "How's the wind?
"Whose chariot's that we left behind?
Or gravely try to read the lines
Writ underneath the country signs;
Or, "Have you nothing new today
"From Pope, from Parnel, or from Gay?
Although this parenthetical, colloquial, ironic passage can
be immediately identified as the work of Swift, it follows
closely after Horace's description of Maecenas.
Horace is again the model for the poem "To the Earl of
Oxford, Late Lord Treasurer. Sent to Him When He Was in the
Tower, Before His Tryal," 1716. This is a conscientiously
faithful rendering of a portion of Ode 2, Dook III, beginning
with the line Wilfred Owen denounced as a lie: "Dulce et
decorum est pro patria mori." For Swift, hoping to give cour-
age to Harley after his impeachment, the line becomes:
How blest is he, who for his country dies . . .
Under a separate heading of foolery, volatility, raillery, and
fun are the verses addressed to Thomas Sheridan, Swift's
56 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
Irish crony and the grandfather of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
For something like twenty-five years the two men exchanged
flurries of rhymed letters, riddles, libels, pasquinades, and
trifles that must have been entertaining to send and receive,
though they often seem like naughty boys' tablet drawings in
Williams's edition of the poems, where they incongruously
appear in handsome format with numbered lines and scholarly
head- and footnotes. Silly as they generally are under solemn
consideration, they nevertheless include the charming "Mary
the Cook-Maid's Letter to Dr. Sheridan" and two or three
other items worth reading once. They are intentionally and
boastfully off-hand pieces: to one of them, thirty-eight lines
long, Swift appended the casual note: "Written, sign'd, and
seal'd, five minutes and eleven seconds after the receipt of
yours, allowing seven seconds for sealing and superscribing,
from my bed-side, just 11 minutes after 11, Sept. 15th 1718."
And to another he added: "I beg your pardon for using my left
hand, but I was in great haste, and the other hand was em-
ployed at the same time in writing some letters of business."
Experiment with rhyme and verse-form, usually tried first by
Sheridan and improved upon by Swift, is constant and, seen
all together, wearisome. But one of Swift's inventions is worth
setting down. Ancestry for the strained, prosy verses of Ogden
Nash and for W.S. Gilbert's "Lost Mr. Blake" can be seen in
the long, laughing, suspended lines of the letter "From Dr.
Swift to Dr. Sheridan, Dec. 14, 1719, 9 at Night":
It is impossible to know by your letter whether the wine
is to be bottled to-morrow, or no.
If it be, or be not, why did not you in plain English tell
For my part, it was by meer chance I came back to sit
with the ladies this night.
And, if they had not told me there was a letter from you,
and your man Alexander had not gone, and come back
from the Deanery, and the boy here had not been sent
to let Alexander know I was here, I should have missed
the letter outright.
THE SIN OP WIT 57
As the letter continues, rolling out lines like carpets, such
devil-may-care rhymes as "vengeance" / "ten jaunts'* fur-
ther resemble the deliberate distortions of Gilbert and Nash
with their "lot of news" / "hypotenuse," "pelican" / "un-
Amelican," and "overemphasis" / "Memphasis."
"VERSES ON THE DEATH OF DR. SWIFT"
For humor and mirth in what he wrote, Swift's best subject
is himself. Meticulously self-effacing in his prose, he goes
out of his way in poem after poem to name himself as "Dr.
S— t," "the Drapier," "Cadenus," or "the Dean." He writes
of his indignation, illness, disgust, and despair in resigned
amusement, less from any wish to be funny than simply be-
cause it is "too late to turn serious now."
Self-consciously, in "The Author upon Himself," 1714,
he tries to catch a reflection or to invent a portrait of the
character with which he wishes to be identified:
S(wift) had the sin of wit, no venial crime;
Nay, 'twas affirm'd, he sometimes dealt in rhirae:
Humour, and mirth, had place in all he writ:
He reconcil'd divinity and wit.
He mov'd, and bow'd, and talk't with too much grace;
Nor shew'd the parson in his gait or face;
Despis'd luxurious wines, and costly meat;
Yet, still was at the tables of the great.
Frequented lords; saw those that saw the Queen;
At Child's or Truby's never once had been;
Where town and country vicars flock in tribes,
Secur'd by numbers from the lay-men's gibes;
And deal in vices of the graver sort,
Tobacco, censure, coffee, pride, and port.
58 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
The last couplet is humorously ironic in its clever dove-tail-
ing of coffeehouse "vices" as abstract as the show of pride
and tangible enough to be drunk or stuffed into a pipe. A later
couplet in the poem provides a nice impression of court pol-
itics and intrigue, in which Swift was a figure sufficiently in-
fluential to be caressed by candidates and lords. It is a blend-
ing of the fastidious and gross, the courtly and vulgar; and
the pause after the first syllable in each line gives the effect
of a burlesqued minuet or a courtier's affected hesitation:
Now, Delawere again familiar grows;
And, in Swift's ear thrusts half his powder' d nose.
This independent, graceful, worldly, humorous Swift, whether
wholly real or in part imaginary, is sometimes transformed into
another Swift of dark, animal force and invective humor. The
following lines from "Holyhead, M 1727, are among those he
wrote in a note-book while awaiting passage to Dublin, where
Stella lay ill. Suavity and refinement give way to impatience
with the irony of the situation:
Lo here I sit at holy head
With muddy ale and mouldy bread
All Christian vittals stink of fish
I'm where my enemyes would wish
I never was in hast before
To reach that slavish hateful shore
Before, I always found the wind
To me was most malicious kind
But now the danger of a friend
On whom my fears and hopes depend
Absent from whom all Clymes are curst
With whom I'm happy in the worst
With rage impatient makes me wait
A passage to the land I hate.
"Lo," in the first line, seems more an ironic pun on the word
"low," to describe Swift's state of mind, than it does an in-
THE SIN OP WIT 59
terjection. Asking to be beheld at his worst, he makes "ale,"
"bread," and "fish" turn dismal by contaminating them with
"mud," "mould," and "stink." The second line is almost too
pleasant to the ear to suit its intention, but the third is mar-
velously ugly with its spit-out i*s: "All Christian vlttals
stink of fish." The scorn that falls on the word "fish" gives
it the heaviest emphasis in the first couplets. Any attempt
to "normalize" these remarkable lines would be as ill-ad-
vised as the inevitable presumption, two hundred years from
now, of patient editors who will "normalize" the poems of
E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas. To alter is sometimes to
spoil; and to replace "holy head" with the proper "Holy-
head" would shift the rhyme-stress to "mouldy" in the second
line, and would be absurd. The spelling here is a part of
Style does not especially distinguish other autobiographical
poems like "In Sickness," 1714, "The Dean to Himself on St.
Cecilia's Day," 1730, "The "Dean and Duke," 1734, or even
the deft little verses on "The Author's Manner of Living."
But it becomes an important consideration in the famous
"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." More than for almost any
other important poem in English, there has been difficulty
here in separating style from subject-matter and poem from
poet. The poem has exploitation of language, genuine rhetor-
ical power, reasonable irony, dry humor, and particularized
observations on the way human beings act. There is an aston-
ishing, teasing marriage of destructive satire and creative
poetry. Even if the verses could be read without biographical
concern, or with minimal concern for the poet's personality,
they would still impress the reader. If, however, Swift's
Poor Pope will grieve a month; and Gay
A week; and Arbuthnott a day
had been written by some little-known eighteenth-century
churchman named Dr. Shift, how famous would it now be? The
lines would sag limply in "Verses on the Death of Dr. Shift"
if they read like this:
Poor Polk will grieve a month; and Jay
60 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
A week; and Higglesby a day.
Knowledge of Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot, whom Swift names
in his couplet, lends something to the lines, but not every-
thing, as the ugly-sounding substitutions make clear. Swift's
repeated p's in "Poor Pope," his alliteration in "grieve" and
"Gay," and, in the second line, variations on the sound of a
are matters of conscious versification.
"On the Death of Dr. Swift" seems in tone midway between
the polish of "The Author on Himself" and the indignation of
"Holyhead," midway, that is, between "He mov'd, and bow'd,
and talk't with too much grace" and "I'm where my enemyes
would wish." Force of passion, acute sensitiveness, bitter-
ness, and laughter mingle to achieve the peculiar Swiftian
irony that drew envy even from Voltaire. The sane, preserva-
tive force of that irony shows itself best when one looks at
another poet's anticipation of death: Thomas Flatman, who
wrote on many of Swift's themes, imagined his own death with-
out irony, humor, or even any dignity. Like Swift after him,
Flatman imagined his friends' conversation on his last day;
and thinking about it made him set up a terrified and dis-
Oh, the sad day,
When friends shall shake their heads and say
Of miserable me,
Hark how he groans, look how he pants for breath,
See how he struggles with the pangs of Death!
Swift neither screams nor groans. Much of the power of his
poem comes from its level tone, everyday language, and pro-
saic detail in a wholly imaginary situation. When a writer has
once created imaginary circumstances, there need be no limits
to his imagination; but for Swift the horrible nightmare of A
Modest Proposal is expressed with efficient, business-like
concern; his Gulliver moves through fantastic settings with
a perfectly convincing air of common sense; in "Baucis and
Philemon" the miracles are matter-of-fact and described pre-
cisely; and the deities' heavenly legal proceedings in "Cad-
enus and Vanessa" might have been taken from London court
THE SIN OP WIT 61
records. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" irony shows
itself in the consummately maintained atmosphere of reality.
On the first of December, 1731, Swift wrote to Gay that he
had been "several months writing near five hundred lines on
a pleasant subject, only to tell what my friends and enemies
will say on me after I am dead. I shall finish it soon, for I
add two lines every week, and blot out four and alter eight.'*
The pleasant subject appeared in print first in oddly garbled
form as "The Life and Genuine Character of Doctor Swift,"
1733; then as "Verses on the Death of Doctor Swift Written
by Himself," 1739, with many alterations and deletions by
Pope and Dr. King; and finally in the genuine version under
Swift's direction as "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.
D. Occasioned by Reading a Maxim by Rochefoulcault. Dans
l'adversite de nos meilleurs amis nous trouvons quelque
chose, qui ne nous deplaist pas," 1739.
To begin, the poem announces its text in La Rochefou-
cauld's cynical philosophy of self-love and submits arguments
As Rochefoucault his maxims drew
From nature, I believe 'em true:
They argue no corrupted mind
In him; the fault is in mankind.
This maxim more than all the rest
Is thought too base for human breast;
"In all distresses of our friends
"We first consult our private ends,
"While nature kindly bent to ease us,
"Points out some circumstance to please us.
This defense of La Rochefoucauld was Swift's way of de-
fending his own point of view. Both the Duke and Dean be-
lieved that Man had degenerated from a higher state toward
which he should climb upwards and spend his life in climb-
ing, though like Hobbes, Montaigne, and Boileau they knew
that the excellences of that higher state could never be re-
gained. Without illusions, they beheld a disenchanted world
62 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
and refused to apply beautiful, false names to its severe
realities. This same world, however, was not without a cer-
tain humor which allowed a duke or a dean to remark cleverly
upon its bitterest truths. In his "Thoughts on Various Sub-
jects" Swift could occasionally be as cynical as La Roche-
foucauld, though his observations are hardly so exquisitely
finished. "It is allow'd, that the cause of most actions, good
or bad, may be resolved into the love of our selves . . . ," he
wrote in the manner of the Maximes. When he learned that
Pope intended to refute the principles of La Rochefoucauld,
he protested that those principles were his own:
I tell you after all, that I do not hate mankind: it is
vous autres who hate them, because you would have
them reasonable animals, and are angry for being
disappointed. I have always rejected that definition,
and made another of my own. I am no more angry with
(Walpole) than I was with the kite that last week
flew away with one of my chickens; and yet I was
pleased when one of ray servants shot him two days
after. This I say, because you are so hardy as to
tell me of your intentions to write maxims in opposi-
tion to Rochefoucauld, who is my favourite, because
I found my whole character in him. However I will
read him again, because I may have since undergone
If he did reread the Maximes, he did not change his opinion;
for outside the allegory of Gulliver's Travels the most elo-
quent statement of his real feelings about mankind appears,
much as La Rochefoucauld might have put it in verse, in the
prophetic description of the effect of his funeral upon the
Swift says that, like everyone else, he envies his acquaint-
ances (1-70); the story follows in brilliant scenes imagining
friends who remark on his decay and then "hug themselves"
because things are "not yet so bad*' with them (71-146); then
the day of his death and shortly after (147-242); conversation
at the bookseller's when a year has passed (243-298); and a
THE SIN OP WIT 63
long coffeehouse exposition of Swift's character by "One
quite indiff'rent in the cause" (299-484). Though he is osten-
sibly talking about himself, Swift has a good deal to say
about friendship, envy, and human relationships in general:
he observes how we hate to be outdone, how we tacitly con-
gratulate ourselves on escaping the misfortunes of our friends,
and how we would wish the odds always on our side. There
is deadly accuracy in these dry, humorous verses.
William Hazlitt did not err when he spoke of Swift's "ex-
quisite tone of irony" and his "touching, unpretending pathos,
mixed up with the most whimsical and eccentric strokes of
pleasantry and satire." It is mostly for these verses alone
that a crumb of admiration is sometimes thrown to Swift as
a poet. Biographers and critics, although they almost never
pause to analyze the poem, usually offer a polite serving
from it and remark on its "splendid lines," "remarkable
passages," and "glow and force of feeling." In Swift's own
time the poem on his death had great circulation and acclaim.
"In short," Dr. King wrote less than two months after its
publication, "all people read it, all agree to commend it, and
I have been well assured, the greatest enemies the Dean has
in this country(England), allow it to be a just and beautiful
"Before the passing-bell begun,
"The news thro' half the town has run.
"0, may we all for death prepare!
"What has he left? and who's his heir?
"I know no more than what the news is,
" 'Tis all bequeath'd to publick uses.
"To publick use! a perfect whim!
"What had the publick done for him!
Here shift the scene, to represent
How those I love, ray death lament.
Poor Pope will grieve a month; and Gay
A week; and Arbuthnott a day.
St. John himself will scarce forbear,
To bite his pen, and drop a tear.
64 HUMOUR. AND MIRTH
The rest will give a shrug and cry,
I'm sorry; but we all must dye.
Indifference, clad in Wisdom's guise,
All fortitude of mind supplies:
For how can stony bowels melt
In those who never pity felt;
When we are lash'd, they kiss the rod;
Resigning to the will of God.
The fools, my juniors by a year,
Are tortur'd with suspense and fear.
Who wisely thought my age a screen,
When death approach'd, to stand between:
The screen remov'd, their hearts are trembling,
They mourn for me without dissembling.
Though there is nothing oblique in these typical lines, they
are by no means flat: personification appears in "Indiffer-
ence" and "Wisdom"; there are figures of speech like "stony
bowels," "kiss the rod," and "my age a screen"; and the
rhetorical question (215-216) is effective. On examination,
however, none of these devices seem very original or over-
whelmingly witty. Like the time-tried phrase "fortitude of
mind," which Swift uses here, they help to give the illusion
of easy, familiar mood to the cynical observations he makes.
In their mocking, humorous context they suit exactly. More
inventive, however, are the wonderful lines that follow, pro-
bably the most deservedly famous in the poem:
My female friends, whose tender hearts
Have better learn'd to act their parts,
Receive the news in doleful dumps,
"The Dean is dead, (and what is trumps?)
"The Lord have mercy on his soul.
"(Ladies, I'll venture for the vole.)
"Six deans, they say, must bear the pall.
"(I wish I knew what king to call.)
"Madam, your husband will attend
"The funeral of so good a friend.
"No madam, 'tis a shocking sight,
THE SIN OF WIT 65
"And he's engag'd to-morrow night!
"My Lady Club wou'd take it ill,
"If he shou'd fail her at quadrill.
"He lov'd the Dean. (I lead a heart.)
"But dearest friends, they say, must part.
"His time was come, he ran his race;
"We hope he's in a better place.
In some of Hardy's "Satires of Circumstance," though sel-
dom so ingenious, close-knit, and well sustained, there is a
kindred disclosure of callousness through light, animated con-
versation. Here the counterpoint of the ladies' card game, the
real business at hand, runs on serenely through their chatter
about their old friend's death; and rather than cluttering or
confusing the episode, their parenthetical remarks bring
variety in tone and pace. The contrasts and juxtapositions
carry irony on several planes. "The Dean is dead, (and what
is trumps?)," for example, combines disparate levels of con-
cern and has an exact balance of phrases to oppose "Dean"
with "what" and "dead" with "trumps." This announcement
of death is ironically accompanied by a term from card play-
ing that is also, in the phrase "the last trump," the poetic
word for "trumpet." An identical pattern is followed in "He
lov'd the Dean. (I lead a heart.)," where there is opposition
of "lov'd" and "lead," "Dean" and "heart." There is poetic
irony again in the suggestion of analogy between pretended
love and a heart that is only a suit in a game of cards. In both
these lines, and through half the episode, there is closeness
of texture from echoed sounds.
Most important, by acting in character to speak for his
"female friends" on the imagined occasion of his death,
Swift hits off a scene to show the casual cruelty and farce of
life through humor that is not often surpassed. He wrote of
himself in the poem as "chearful to his dying day," but his
humor was neither that of a gaffer's snigger from a rocking-
chair nor a vestry-room giggle behind the starched sleeve of
a white lawn surplice: even when he laughed loudest or was
66 HUMOUR, AND MIRTH
most ironic, be said he usually had a certain view in mind:
"Perhaps I may allow, the Dean
"Had too much satyr in his vein;
"And seem'd determin'd not to starve it,
"Because no age could more deserve it.
"Yet, malice never was his aim;
"He lash'd the vice but spar'd the name.
"No individual could resent,
"Where thousands equally were meant.
"His satyr points at no defect,
"But what all mortals may correct;
"For he abhorr'd that senseless tribe,
"Who call it humour when they jibe:
"He spar'd a hump or crooked nose,
"Whose owners set not up for beaux.
"True genuine dulness mov'd his pity,
"Unless it offer'd to be witty.
SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
SWIFT'S IDEA OF WIT
It was to punish him for his wit that caricatures of Jona-
than Swift in his own day showed, beneath his churchly gown,
a cloven devil's foot. Punishment of the same kind, he thought,
withheld preferments from him, brought him the name of dan-
gerous free-thinker, and banished him to his unwanted deanery
in Dublin. Though he had hoped for a bishopric and was prom-
ised medals by the Queen, without them he still had wit
brighter than a drawerful of medals. Speaking in the exasper-
ated voice of experience that has fed on obstacles, the voice
of wit that has suffered for the crime of being witty, Swift
fixes the reader's eye to address him point-blank:
Since there are persons who complain
There's too much satire in my vein . . .
("A Dialogue between an Eminent
Lawyer and Dr. Swift," 1-2)
68 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
Rightly you shew, that wit alone
Advances few, enriches none . . .
("A Panegyric on the Reverend
Dean Swift," 72-73)
So academick dull ale-drinkers
Pronounce all men of wit, free-thinkers.
("To Dr. Delany on the Libels,"
"Had he but spared his tongue and pen,
"He might have rose like other men . . .
("Verses on the Death of Dr.
These lines, among others in the poetry, form a kind of essay
on the price to be paid for wit. In his correspondence, too, the
subject is a recurring one. When, out of his years and sick-
ness and rage, he looked back at his career, he knew that he
had written too much satirical poetry for his own good and that
it had angered great people who might have done him favors.
Nevertheless, when he sent advice to an overserious beginner
in poetry, Swift pressed him to try for a vein of satire and a
state of mind racier than he could find in Milton, who had
been his model. Swift was, it is clear, recommending as a
model his own poetry of inventive, surprising, and lashing wit:
As I am conjectured to have generally dealt in rail-
lery and satire, both in prose and verse, if that con-
jecture be right, although such an opinion has been
an absolute bar to my rising in the world, yet that
very world must suppose that I followed what I
thought to be my talent, and charitable people will
suppose I had a design to laugh the follies of man-
kind out of countenance, and as often to lash the
vices out of practice. And then it will be natural to
conclude, that I have some partiality for such kind
of writing, and favour it in others.
Though he had lost a mitre through dangerous wit, he still
THE SIN OP WIT 69
urged its use to express contempt for whatever is ludicrous
and absurd. This was, he knew, a daring thing to recommend;
for men of wit are always looked upon with some suspicion.
The early eighteenth century was markedly a time of suspicion,
argument, and sense, in which the sensible men were method-
ical and utilitarian; believed in a reasonable age of progress;
and frowned steadily upon the men of wit. To cultivate scorn
and wantonly oppose progress with the counter-force of satire
seemed reprehensible. Witty play on words or ideas, or play
of almost any kind seemed, as it had to Bunyan, a thing to
check. Steele, who desired to be spokesman for the age, en-
couraged the scorning of scorn, saying that hearts are more
valuable than wits. In the Epilogue to The Lying Lover he
called laughter "a distorted passion" and recommended the
"gen'rous pity of a painted woe" as an emotion far more
heartfelt and sensible. The "bloody battle" between Wit and
Sense was chronicled in a long poem by Defoe early in his
career. He described the sallies by Blackmore and Collier
against the Wits, recounted Dennis's raids in reprisal, and
came to the conclusion that neither side could live alone:
The Men of Sense against the Men of Wit,
Eternal fighting must determine it.
Wit is a king without a parliament,
And Sense a democratic government:
Wit, like the French, wher'e'er it reigns destroys,
And Sense advanc'd is apt to tyrranize:
Wit without Sense is like the laughing-evil
And Sense unmix'd with fancy is the d— 1.
(Defoe, "The Pacificator," 57-58, 365-370)
In Swift's own work, sense and wit were united. But the
men of sense still frowned. "... I have heard often affirmed
by innocent people, that too much wit is dangerous to salva-
tion," Pope once wrote in a joking mood to Swift. Years later
and not jokingly, Thomas Gray wrote of himself: "No very
great wit, he believed in a God..." Many years later still,
using a different aspect of the word, Matthew Arnold did not
even smile when he condemned poetry of the wits because, he
70 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
said, "...genuine poetry is conceived in the soul.*'
If wit is dangerous, a barrier to success, a sin, a mark of
godiessness, and lodged only in poetry that is a fraud, it
would seem a thing to be avoided by poets who have any care
for general acclaim. But in Swift's day, at least, it was pur-
sued like gold and was less often captured, so that he cyn-
All human race wou'd fain be wits,
And millions miss, for one that hits.
("On Poetry: A Rapsody," 1-2)
Those who did not miss were the men we call the great ones
of Swift's time, even though— as Pope's "innocent people ff
hoped was true— they may have forfeited heavenly salvation.
Wittily as their art allowed, pretenders to the title of poetic
wit have sought to fix its changeable, shifty, inconstant mean-
ing. For the most part they have had to concede that although
wit is fine equipment for a poet, its definition does not come
easily. Critics of literature, following the poets, have more
confidently said what it might be. And categories, analyses,
and explanations are set down by scholars following a dis-
tance after the critics.
In Shakespeare's time the usual meaning of wit was a spa-
cious, generalized one of "wisdom," "sense," or "mind."
But toward the middle of the seventeenth century when John
Donne's songs and sonnets were published, it was a name
for the poetic process itself and was particularly akin to what
was known and courted as "fancy." Donne's was a wit of
audacious surprise that saw poetic resemblances and anal-
ogies between the rarity of a comet and a woman's innocence,
between pearls and the sweat-drops on his mistress' brow,
and between a shattered mirror and his own heart. It was often
brilliant conceit that could dazzle or blind or, often too,
merely distract. In his Leviathan, 1651, Thomas Hobbes made
a famous distinction between this "fancy" of resemblances
and the "judgment" that shows differences in objects seem-
ingly alike: ornaments and flowers, Hobbes said, grow from
THE SIN OP WIT 71
"fancy"; but the structure of the tree of verse itself is a
thing of "judgment." For great poetry he would have them
By the time of Abraham Cowley, whom Swift in his youth
tried to imitate, wit could be thought of as structural, steady,
and sober, nourished by the conscious faculties. Cowley's
ode "Of Wit," 1656, describes a thing bearing a thousand
different shapes but having orderliness of ideas and lending
harmony and proportion to poetry. This dignifying point of
view would have pleased Sir William Temple. By 1690, during
Swift's decade of intermittent employment in his home, Sir
William was out of patience with the pestilence of conceit,
writing that it was like spangles hiding a gown, as frequent
as rhyme in the "scribbles" of the day. Five years later,
clever William Congreve, Swift's former schoolmate in Ireland,
paused in his observations on humor in comedy to remark, less
cleverly than usual, that though wit seemed to be the opposite
of folly, like humor it could not be certainly defined. These
were the years in which young Jonathan Swift, in his middle
twenties, was publishing his first poem, in imitation of Cow-
ley; addressing verses to Temple and Congreve; and writing
about "the ambition of ray wit," "the lost language, wit,"
and saying "We join like flyes, and wasps, in buzzing about
wit," self-consciously hunting out "writ," "pit," "it," and
"sit" for his rhyme.
Among the poets it remained for John Dryden, who is sup-
posed to have scared the hankering for sublimity out of Cousin
Swift, to write as an authority on the subject. Wishing to ex-
change surface-glitter and dancing conceits, however attract-
ive they may be, for a manly, "boisterous English wit,"
Dryden praised that lively faculty of imagination "which like
a nimble spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field of
memory..." Yet when it came time for Swift's friend Joseph
Addison to try his hand, Dryden's easy dictum was no longer
acceptable. Observing like all the others how wit is admired
but little understood, Addison found most satisfactory of all,
the philosophical account by John Locke in which wit was
shown to be a resemblance and congruity of ideas. Addison
thought it necessary to remark, as he was at last separating
72 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
true wit from the false and mixed, that resemblances of ideas
are, after all, not wit unless for the reader they bring delight
and, especially, surprise: "Thus when a poet tells us the
bosom of his mistress is as white as snow, there is no wit in
the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as
cold too, it then grows into wit."
A dearer friend of Swift's among the poets might have
called his "Essay on Criticism" an "Essay on Wit" in-
stead; for to Pope criticism, wit, and poetry were locked
inextricably. Like Cowley he would have poetic wit of har-
mony, order, and proportion; like Temple he expressed im-
patience with the ornament and trimming of pasted-on con-
ceits; like Dryden he praised the powerful effect of "the
joint force and fell result of all"; and like Addison he appre-
ciated the art of manipulated surprise:
True wit is nature to advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd;
Something, whose truth convinc'd at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
(Pope, "Essay on Criticism," 297-300)
Pope's description did not satisfy Dr. Johnson. A nobler
sort of wit, he felt, would express ideas, not of "What oft
was thought," but of "that which he that never found it won-
ders how he missed . . ." Dr. Johnson saw neither sort in the
work of Donne, Jonson, Cleveland, Cowley, and the other
poets he termed "metaphysical." To him, their wit seemed
merely an extravagance of language best exemplified by the
outlandish, wonderful puns extending through the most serious
poems of John Donne. Long before this wit of language had
received Johnson's depreciatory name of "metaphysical," it
had become somewhat out-moded. Even before the close of
the seventeenth century, especially in comedies for the stage,
it was a source for amusement. In the first scene of Shad-
well's Bury-Fair, 1689, Mr. Wildish remarks of Mr. Oldwit
that he is "a paltry old-fashioned wit, and punner of the last
age; that pretends to have been one of Ben Johnson's sons,
and to have seen plays at the Blackfryers."
The poetry of Swift is not so irreconcilably different from
THE SIN OF WIT 73
the poetry of Donne and the sons of Ben as many literary
historians have believed: both are poetry of wit. But wit for
Swift was less a matter of style than a point of view. Donne's
elegy called "Going to Bed" and Swift's "A Beautiful Young
Nymph Going to Bed" are both poems that have been called
indelicate and disgusting; they both describe the disrobing
of a woman; and both are successful poems of wit. There
could hardly be, however, two poems more patently unlike in
their intention and effect. The audaciously physical meta-
phors, similes, and puns in the love-poem "Going to Bed"
are centered in Donne's exultant cry of "Full nakedness!"
Nakedness in "A Young Nymph Going to Bed" is made in-
tentionally unattractive by enumeration of "artificial hair,"
"flabby dugs," and "running sores." There is a real sim-
ilarity between Donne and Swift in certain passages from
poems on their own deaths. This is a subject with which both
poets were preoccupied: the first line of Donne's fourth "Sa-
tyre"— "Well! I may now receive, and die ..." — could also
serve for "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." But even when
they are most alike, the two poets do not share quite the same
kind of wit. In many of Swift's poems wit is more than a mat-
ter of style. Its purpose is often one of scorn; and Swift's
scorn, in his poetry and prose as well, can be magnificent.
For Donne wit was generally an artistic tool. For Swift it
was more often employed as a weapon.
Swift himself accepted the title of "wit." In his earliest
correspondence he wrote of "the wits" as coxcombs and
macaronies; but by the time he had become a redoubtable
figure in London, in the days of his political power, he had
assumed the name for himself and was already jealous of
others who wished to share it. "I hate to have any new witts
rise," he wrote in the Journal to Stella; "but when they do
rise I would encourage them, but they tread on our heels, &
thrust us off the stage." When he was a veteran on that stage,
he was still out of patience with aspirants to the name of wit,
especially if their talent seemed to lie only in presumption.
A dandyish young man once made the mistake of saying to
him, with a gesture:
"You must know, Mr. Dean, that I set up for a wit."
74 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
"Do you so," said Swift; "then take my advice, and
sit down again."
Though he defined "wit," like Pope and the others he did
not always remember his definition, writing at one time of
wit and sense as a compatible pair, and elsewhere allying it
with elegance, judgment, joke, or virtue. Whatever company
it might keep, he praised it, saying in The Author's Apology
for A Tale of a Tub y that "wit is the noblest and most useful
gift of human nature..." When he qualified this, in a famous
sentence from The Battle of the Books, it was to disown as
true wit all that was giddy and smart without judgment to give
it body: "Wit, without knowledge, being a sort of cream, which
gathers in a night to the top, and, by a skilful hand, may be
soon whipped into froth; but, once scummed away, what ap-
pears underneath will be fit for nothing but to be thrown to
He went further to differentiate from humor and raillery the
inventive wit of the intellect that could not be merely scummed
away, though he was particular to say that he was erecting no
boundaries of definition:
(Wit), as boundless as the wind;
Is well conceiv'd tho not defin'd;
For, sure, by wit is onely meant
Applying what we first invent . . .
For wit and humor differ quite,
That gives surprise, and this delight. . .
("To Mr. Delany," 15-18, 23-24)
Swift was thinking here of the invention and surprise in con-
versational wit, but his poetry is itself so remarkably con-
versational, often in the form of monologue and dialogue, that
what he says is appropriate to "Baucis and Philemon," "The
Day of Judgement," and all his other sly, satirical, and un-
expected wit-in-rhyme. By prescribing invention and surprise
for true wit, he was not drawing upon the Cowleyan idea of
harmony and proportion of intellect and the senses so much
as upon a concept like Addison's. If he had invented the
simile of snow to describe a mistress* bosom, he would have
THE SIN OP WIT 75
done so for the sake of mischievous parody; but he would
have gone on, like Addison, to make wit of the simile. Wit,
he told Dr. Delany, "is a quick-sighted faculty, which finds
out allusions and resemblances of things, seemingly most
distant and unlike: and when it hath found them out, its
greatest delight is to shew them: and therefore can seldom
resist the pride, and pleasure of doing so; be the subject
what it will, or the occasions never so improper."
Because Swift was the man he was, his subject for wit and
its occasion were seldom so uninventive and without surprise
as the description of a mistress' bosom in clever society
love-verse. When he wrote with most endearment of Stella, it
was to liken her, and rather movingly, to a weather-beaten
sign, a badger, or a cow. Most often his wit in poetry and
prose was in the form of satirical comment, perhaps start-
lingly point-blank or sometimes wickedly roundabout, on what-
ever offended his good sense. Even when he wrote in a burst
of spite on "occasions never so improper," or intentionally
to vex the world, he wrote with keen and imaginative wit that
grew out of invention of the mind and was colored, sometimes
almost alarmingly, with brilliant surprises.
THE PATTERN FOR "THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT"
In all Jonathan Swift's poems, though it is especially ap-
parent in the briefer ones, wit often lies in juxtapositions no
less surprising than T.S.Eliot's use of "garlic," "sapphires,"
and "mud" in a single line. Many of these poems by Swift,
which are almost perfect of their kind and should be better
known, depend upon a final line or two for their chief effect
through sudden contrast of the literary and colloquial, ether-
ial and earthy. Such a poem is "The Power of Time," 1727 #
Its subject is as familiar in the world of poetry as the charm
of Beauty and the triumph of Death: even stone and brass,
poems on the subject remind us, do not last for ever. In
Shakespeare's sonnet it sounds like this: "Since brass, nor
76 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, / But Bad mortality o'er-
s ways their power..."; and Swift's friend Thomas Parnell
echoes with: "Relentless Time! destroying power. / Whom
stone and brass decay..." Now when the reader of Jonathan
Swift's poetry sees in measured lines, solemnly musical, the
old accepted phrases for a poem on the power of Time, he
should be wary. He must no more settle back to be lulled by
familiar apothegm than settle back to learn geography from
what disarmingly purports to be Travels into Several Remote
Nations of the World y in Four Parts.
The Power of Time
If neither brass nor marble can withstand
The mortal force of Time's destructive hand;
If mountains sink to vales, if cities die
And lessening rivers mourn their fountains dry;
When my old cassock, says a Welch divine,
Is out at elbows, why should I repine?
The query of the final lines, rushing after pretentious
stresses that have preceded, brings the unexpected in a hurry.
From the abstract, grand, and "poetic" of his parody Swift
has turned in an instant to the common and specific: Time's
mortal force, death of cities, and the end of rivers are them-
selves paradoxically destroyed by the image, brought close
before the reader's eyes, of a cassock threadbare from use.
And it is after the spread-out literary elegance of marble,
vales, and fountains, when we might expect to read at least
of "priestly robes," that we are surprised back into an in-
elegant world with the homely phrase "out at elbows."
Though this brief poem opens with mellifluous couplets that
mimic pretentious poetry almost too exactly, the query of the
Welshman comes as a relief as well as a surprise. It is the
expected unexpected. The effect is certainly no accident, for
we know that Swift revised the lines to achieve his end. As
he tentatively wrote them they were:
When the old cassock of el Welch divine
Is out at elbows why should he repine?
THE SIN OF WIT 77
In that form the surprise is less, and the effect is not so im-
mediate: it is second-hand, with the speaker still in the
middle-distance rather than talking in the first-person-singular
as he is in the finished poem—talking at the reader's side.
The twist from remote to immediate, impersonal to personal,
lofty to colloquial, sententious to witty, unreal to real, is
adeptly manipulated in the six lines of this light verse. But
it is not necessarily inconsequential because it is light. In
his sonnet "Since Brass nor Stone," Shakespeare says that
as Time destroys all things, Beauty cannot survive except,
perhaps, in the expression of love immortalized in his sonnet
itself. What Swift is saying seems at least as wise and mem-
orable: that since all things decay, even impersonal things
we call indestructible, it is useless to complain of losses
that are merely personal.
Variations on the device of witty turnabout are familiar in
brief fiction like that of Maupassant and in ironic verses like
Thomas Hardy's "Satires of Circumstance" where a conclud-
ing phrase may abruptly reveal a preacher's vanity, a bride's
domination by an old love, or a lifetime of misunderstanding.
For Swift the device takes several forms: there are brief
poems which turn suddenly in their conclusion from lofty to
colloquial style; certain epigrammatic verses intended to sur-
prise; and a few important poems that seem successful par-
odies largely because of their concluding lines.
Of the first sort is the poem "On His Deafness," 1734,
which follows the same pattern as "The Power of Time" to
cause surprise. In Swift's correspondence his complaints of
vertigo, deafness, and head-noises show that he was often in
physical discomfort and that it was a matter that tormented
him. Yet in eight lines he uses wit to describe his situation.
"Deaf, giddy, helpless, left alone" might in other hands have
introduced observations like those that follow Milton's "When
I consider how my light is spent," or it might merely have
aroused pity by a catalogue of infirmities. But this is poetry
of wit that suddenly thrusts a fool's cap on the hero's head
or snatches away the beau's fine wig to show him bald.
78 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
On His Deafness
Deaf, giddy, helpless, left alone,
To all my friends a burthen grown,
No more I hear my church's bell,
Than if it rang out for my knell:
At thunder now no more I start,
Than at the rumbling of a cart:
Nay, what's incredible, alack!
I hardly hear a woman's clack.
Without the final line even the rather well-turned remark on
his funeral bell does not make the poem a witty one. It is
the single colloquial word "clack," like the phrase "out at
elbows" in "The Power of Time," that brings full surprise
into the lines. If rhyme allowed substitution of the word "talk"
for "clack," the wit would vanish and interest would lie
chiefly in Swift's willingness to find amusement in verses on
his deafness, giddiness, and old age.
Though a third poem and one better known, "The Place of
the Damn'd," 1731, depends upon Swift's contrast of style
and mood, there is amusement of a different sort in its final
two lines; for they conclude a poem of such cumulative viol-
ence that even the relief of a sudden, quietly conversational
ending does not dispel it. The furious insistent drumming of
the e/'s in "damn'd," repeated eighteen times in as many
lines, can still be heard when the poem is finished.
The Place of the Damn'd
All folks who pretend to religion and grace,
Allow there's a Hell, but dispute of the place;
But if Hell may by logical rules be defin'd,
The Place of the Damn'd,— I'll tell you my mind.
Wherever the damn'd do chiefly abound,
Most certainly there is the Hell to be found,
Damn'd poets, damn'd critics, damn'd block-heads, damn'd
Damn'd senators brib'd, damn'd prostitute slaves;
Damn'd lawyers and judges, damn'd lords and damn'd
THE SIN OP WIT 79
Damn'd spies and informers, daranM friends and damn'd
Damn'd villains, corrupted in every station,
Damn'd time-serving priests all over the nation;
And into the bargain, I'll readily give you,
Damn'd ignorant prelates, and councellors privy.
Then let us no longer by parsons be flamm'd,
For we know by these marks, the place of the damn'd;
And Hell to be sure is at Paris or Rome,
How happy for us, that it is not at home.
The sardonic impression left by the poem comes from invec-
tive suddenly changed to mock-fatuous mimicry of what might
be expressed by a self-righteous householder. "How happy
for us" can hardly be read aloud without an imitation of a
smirk. But the fierce accusal in "Damn'd ignorant prelates"
and "Damn'd time-serving priests," for instance, makes light
verse seem a misnomer: it disturbs and vexes, precisely as
Swift often said he intended, and as the modern "light verse"
of E.E. Cummings can disturb when he says what he thinks
about politicians, anthologists, and salesmen.
It too is devilishly witty, but there is nothing amusing
whatsoever in "The Day of Judgement," the most powerful
of Swift's briefer poems. In it the device of surprise by con-
trast is almost the same as that in "The Place of the Damn'd";
but when higher language drops to the colloquial here, the
poem's anger is intensified. Surely it is anger as unrelieved,
even by wit, as that in any other twenty-two rhymed lines in
English; and yet the poem is one of wit.
The choice of subject does not make it so: Thackeray un-
intentionally demonstrates this when he holds up "The Day
of Judgement" alongside prose extracts from Addison and
Steele, intending to place Sir Richard to advantage. He
imagines a mad, terrible Swift "stamping on a grave and carry-
ing his scorn for mankind actually beyond it" and imagines
Swift saying: "Miserable, purblind wretches, how dare you
pretend to comprehend the Inscrutable...?" Beside him,
Thackeray tells us, is Addison, "smiling over the tombstones,
and catching, as is his wont, quite a divine effulgence as he
80 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
looks heavenward..." But Sir Richard Steele "leads you up
to his father's coffin, and shows you his beautiful mother
weeping, and himself an unconscious little boy wondering at
her side. His own natural tears flow, as he takes your hand
and confidingly asks your sympathy. 'See how good and inno-
cent and beautiful women are,' he says, 'how tender little
children! Let us love these and one another, brother...'"
To avoid the embarrassment of Steele's own natural tears the
modern reader hastens back with new respect for the "terrible
lines of Swift," ready to help him stamp on graves.
When Thomas Flatman and Isaac Watts wrote on the same
theme in verse, they did not have wit in mind. "A Dooms-Day
Thought: Anno 1659" leads through Flatraan's graveyard
imaginings and his attempts to intimidate ("who can dwell /
With everlasting burnings!") to his climactic admonition: on
Judgement Day it will be too late to mend our ways. In Watts's
"Day of Judgment: An Ode Attempted in English Sapphick,"
the verse-form holds more interest than what is being said.
Here too the reader is meant to be intimidated by "Hark the
shrill outcries of the guilty wretches!" and "Thoughts like
old vultures prey upon their heartstrings" until the poet bids
his fancy stop, cries "Come arise to Jesus," and concludes
with enthusiastic smugness in the language of prayer-meetings
"The Day of Judgement" bearing Swift's name is unlike
the work of Flatman, Watts, or anyone else than Swift. He
had, however, been dead for almost thirty years before it was
first printed— under circumstances that remain one of the most
intriguing pieces of unfinished business in literary history.
On August 27, 1752, Lord Chesterfield wrote to Voltaire that
he was sending him a poem on "Jupiter, au jour du jugement,"
copied from Swift's unpublished manuscript in Chesterfield's
possession. "Son Jupiter," he added to flatter Voltaire,
"... les traite a peu pres corarae vous les traitez, et comme
ils le raeritent." And on November 21, 1756, Chesterfield
quoted from Swift's poem in a letter to the Bishop of Water-
ford: "The mad business of the world (as Swift says) is over
with me." But when the letter to Voltaire was first published
in Chesterfield's Letters, April 7, 1774, no poem accompanied
THE SIN OP WIT 81
it. The poem appeared almost simultaneously, however, in the
St. James's Chronicle for April 9-12, 1774, with a prefatory
note referring to Chesterfield's Letters, and mysteriously
signed "Mercutio." Who "Mercutio" was, why he did not re-
veal himself, how he came into possession of the poem, and
whether he may not have written it himself in imitation of
Swift, are questions scholars who track down such matters
have been unable to answer. Swift is, nevertheless, almost
as certainly the author of "The Day of Judgement" as Shakes-
peare is of King Lear. The pattern for the poem is typical of
his ingenious verses that suddenly, through legerdemain of
style, assume a new identity on the page while the reader
The Day of Judgement
With a whirl of thought oppress'd,
I sink from reverie to rest.
An horrid vision seiz'd my head,
I saw the graves give up their dead.
Jove, arm'd with terrors, burst the skies,
And thunder roars, and light'ning flies!
Amaz'd, confus'd, its fate unknown,
The world stands trembling at his throne.
While each pale sinner hangs his head,
Jove, nodding, shook the heav'ns, and said,
"Offending race of human kind,
By nature, reason, learning, blind;
You who thro* frailty step'd aside,
And you who never fell— thro* pride;
You who in different sects have shamm'd,
And come to see each other damn'd;
(So some folks told you, but they knew
No more of Jove's designs than you)
The world's mad business now is o'er,
And I resent these pranks no more.
I to such blockheads set my wit!
I damn such fools!— Go, go, you're bit."
Though some critics have said that tormented hours of
skepticism, leading to madness, are reflected in these lines,
82 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
it is more useful to observe that the lines reflect a very con-
scious ability to create a startling poetic effect through ver-
sification and language. Swift does not ride an octosyllabic
rocking-horse but alters and shifts the verbal pattern to fit
his mood and meaning. If the first line, for instance, were in
regular iambic meter, with four evenly-spaced stresses, as in
"A WHIRL of THOUGHT my MIND opPRESS'D," there would
be no conviction whatever in the word "whirl." Swift's lead-
ing in with a hurried anapest makes the difference. In the
fifth and tenth lines, where Jove, "arm'd" and "nodding,"
enters the poem, there are heavy stresses made longer by
pauses within the lines. Aloud, at least, the tenth line re-
quires almost twice as long to read as the first.
In employing wit to uncover irreligion that calls itself
piety, "The Day of Judgement" shows a furious Jove who
speaks in language befitting a god, even in the contemptuous
"pranks" to describe Man's childish hypocrisies, until the
fierce concluding couplet, where the language is that of
colloquial speech. Whereas Jove has spoken of himself in
the remote third-person ("Jove's designs"), he is now ter-
rifyingly near us, using our own speech, in first-person
phrases of "I resent," "I. . .set my wit," and "I damn." The
Jove who had shaken the heavens has come too close for
comfort; he has become, especially in the furious monosylla-
bic final line, Jonathan Swift himself, periwigged, and cry-
ing "Go, go, you're bit. 9 *
When he was young and liked a new phrase to amuse, Swift
wrote to a friend: "I will teach you a way to outwit Mrs. John-
son: it is a new-fashioned way of being witty, and they call
it a bite. You must ask a bantering question, or tell some
damned lie in a serious manner, and then she will answer or
speak as if you were in earnest; and then cry you, 'Madam,
there's a bite.'" You're bit, spoken in cold disgust by a Jove
ready in dreadful sport to condemn or abandon all mankind,
is certainly not amusing, though it is still witty and still
part of Comedy. For Comedy, like that of another age in which
Thomas Hardy's Jove has himself become irresponsible and
the Godhead no longer has a brain, is not always amusing.
THE SIN OP WIT 83
In certain shorter poems, concise, and pointed like arrows,
the wit is epigrammatic. Observations on subjects like the
English tongue, Irish sense, or violent wives, these epigrams
hit their mark precisely. Swift's "Epigram on Scolding" bears
no date of composition in Williams's edition of the poems, but
certain phrases in it closely resemble those in a letter from
William Pulteney, written to Swift on February 9, 1731. Pult-
eney was reporting on Dr. Arbuthnot's "Brief Account of Mr.
John Ginglicut's Treatise concerning the Altercation or
Scolding of the Ancients," and he told how Arbuthnot had
amused himself by pretending to assign classical dignity to
the mud-pie-war of invective in contemporary English pam-
phlets. "He shows," Pulteney wrote, "how the gods and
goddesses used one another— dog, bitch, and whore, were
pretty common expressions among them..." Swift's similar
phrases are witty and mocking:
Great folks are of a finer mold;
Lord! how politely they can scold;
While a coarse English tongue will itch,
For whore and rogue; and dog and bitch.
Better known, with the same kind of exclamatory irony, is
the quatrain on Irish sense. Familiar in biographies and stud-
ies of Swift, it is intended to show how, in the years when
his mind had failed, his former intelligence gleamed brightly
for a minute when he saw the armory in Phoenix Park and wrote
in his pocket-book:
Behold! a proof of Irish sense!
Here Irish wit is seen!
When nothing's left, that's worth defence,
We build a magazine.
In the early pages of Finnegans Wake, through which the in-
dignant ghost of Swift moves restlessly, James Joyce uses
this epigram in disguised form. In the first line, printed as
84 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
prose, "Behold" is changed to "Behove"; and Swift's "proof"
becomes "sound" in H.C. Earwicker's wonderful dream.
As tersely as he wrote about the English tongue and Irish
sense, Swift put down rhymes on marriage or, more exactly,
on women who manhandle their men. There are three of these
epigrams, all transcribed in Stella's hand. The briefer ones,
beginning "When Margery chastises Ned" and "Joan cudgells
Ned, yet Ned's a bully," depend for their wit upon eighteenth-
century slang like "combs his head," "finds him horn," and
"cully." The third, though perhaps earliest in composition,
ends with the surprising, cynical wit that characterizes a good
epigram, here repeating a phrase from the first line to add
full circle to the surprise. It is a pattern that turns on itself:
As Thomas was cudgell'd one day by his wife,
He took to the street, and fled for his life:
Tom's three dearest friends came by in the squabble,
And sav'd him at once from the shrew and the rabble;
Then ventur'd to give him some sober advice,
But Tom is a person of honor so nice
Too wise to take counsel, too proud to take warning,
That he sent to all three a challenge next morning.
Three duels he fought, thrice ventur'd his life;
Went home, and was cudgell'd again by his wife.
Th.s is reminiscent of the undeluded, rough-tongued epigrams
of Thomas Hardy. But the author of "Verses on the Death of
Dr. Swift" and "The Day of Judgement" was writing here,
offhand, to entertain friends of an evening with wine or to
show how neatly he could crystallize a witty observation in
"DESCRIPTION OF A CITY SHOWER"
"BAUCIS AND PHILEMON"
Still other poems by Swift are notable because of endings
which make clear, suddenly, that one has been reading parody
THE SIN OP WIT 85
all along and that what has perhaps been taken seriously was
really spoken through a mask. "The Power of Time," in which
solemnly poetic lines turn into a Welsh preacher's observation
on his poverty, is a good example. But that poem is not re-
vealed as so obvious a parody as are two of Swift's longer,
more masterly, and better-known poems, his "Description of
a City Shower" and "Baucis and Philemon."
Early in October, 1710, he wrote to Stella about his "poet-
ical 'Description of a Shower in London' " for the Tatler, later
added that it was finished, "all but the beginning," and then
reported that the missing lines had been supplied. Finally, on
the seventeenth of October, he wrote: "This day came out the
Tatler, made up wholly of my 'Shower,' and a preface to it.
They say it is the best thing I ever writ, and I think so too."
He pressed Stella for her opinion of the poem; and he was de-
lighted when Rowe and Prior "both fell commending my
'Shower' beyond anything that has been written of the kind:
there never was such a 'Shower' since Danae's, etc. . ." His
verses on the morning, Swift himself insisted, were "not half
so good." There had been no such delight and wish for ap-
proval in his references to his essays and other works in
prose, though many of them received approval, and deserved
it. There had hardly been such a show of eagerness since his
youthful letter to his cousin in which he confessed his ambi-
tion to sing odes like Cowley's. But now he was a more cyn-
ical Swift; youthful eagerness, which he patronized in others,
had for himself evaporated.
2^ Like many of his best poems "A Description of a City
Shower" is in Swift's racy, almost anti-"poetic" style, with
swarming realistic detail. Its last three lines give the show
away, however, when the admirably realistic turns suddenly
to open-faced parody: the author has been artfully fooling
with the reader, as he does in Gulliver's Travels and A Modest
Proposal. There are three levels to the poem. It is an evoca-
tion of what a rainstorm in eighteenth-century London was
like; it is a criticism of all romantic and all dishonest de-
scription of nature; and its ending is specifically a parody of
Dryden's favorite Alexandrines and triplet-rhymes. In the
1735 edition of the poems the "Shower" bears a note to just
86 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
this effect; and in a letter, Swift wrote that "I was so angry
at these corruptions that above twenty-four years ago I ban-
ished them all by one triplet, with the Alexandrine, upon a
very ridiculous subject."
The poem is in four unframed vignettes that show the pre-
sentiment of rain, its preliminary sprinkle, the downpour, and
the flood. As the shower grows, so does the wit. There is only
a hint in the third line, with a suspicious use of the word
"pensive," so familiar in serious Augustan elegies, that
this is mock-heroic verse; for Swift's "pensive" describes a
cat. Plumbing that stinks and corns that pain increase the
suspicion that this is mockery of romantic nature-poetry, and
the reader should be on to the joke by the time he begins the
second division of the "Shower":
Mean while the South rising with dabbled wings,
A sable cloud a-thwart the welkin flings,
That swill'd more liquor than it could contain,
And like a drunkard gives it up again.
Probably the weakest in the poem, these plug-ugly lines are
at the same time its strongest example of Swiftian juxtaposi-
tion meant to surprise. Deliberately hackneyed "poetical"
phrases lead into phrases that are as deliberately un-"poet-
ical" in subject and sound. "Swill'd" has the same relation-
ship to "sable cloud" as the poem's concluding lines have
to the poem itself.
Although that conclusion is the most famous part of the
"Shower," and the part with which Swift thought he had
"banished" certain corruptions from English poetry, the
middle sections of the poem are what other writers might
envy most. With easy thrift of words they sketch line-draw-
ings of people in the rain or keeping out of it: a maid, a poet,
shoppers, a barrister, a sempstress, Tories and Whigs, and an
impatient dandy. In wittily describing people Swift is at his
best. Humanizing everywhere— even in his prose on philosophy,
politics, religion, and literature— he invented people (or some-
times animals) to act out and say for him what he wanted to
say, and called them Jack, Peter, Martin, Isaac Bickerstaff,
THE SIN OF WIT 87
Martin Scriblerus, M.B. Drapier, Lord Sparkish, or the Emperor
of Lilliput. He drew Lemael Gulliver, for instance, so well
that readers have sometimes been diverted from what Gulliver
is intended to tell them. Here are his Londoners in the rain:
Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threat'ning with deluge this devoted town.
To shops in crouds the daggled females fly,
Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy.
The Templer spruce, while ev'ry spout's a-broach,
Stays till 'tis fair, yet seems to call a coach.
The tuck'd-up sempstress walks with hasty strides,
While streams run down her oil'd umbrella's sides.
Here various kinds by various fortunes led,
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed.
Triumphant Tories, and desponding Whigs,
Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs.
Box'd in a chair the beau impatient sits,
While spouts run clatt'ring o'er the roof by fits . . .
Beginning with "contiguous," which falls into the poem as
heavily as the cloudburst it is meant to suggest, there is a
good deal in these lines that is skilfully arranged. Especially
tight-packed, like Hogarth's bright engraving "Noon," are the
heroic couplets with their group-portrait of bespattered shop-
pers and the full-length single portrait of the hurrying semp-
stress whose exact way of walking, arrangement of dress, and
(still more closely observed) wet umbrella require only a few
phrases. Though the compactness comes in part from expert
use of heroic couplets, there are other devices, and a deter-
mination to be succinct. Alliteration in almost every line and
even repetition of syllables and whole words gives an effect
of interweaving: "various kinds .... various fortunes" and
"While rain dePENds, the PENsive cat gives o'er," for in-
stance. Swift's skill is doubly evident when one turns for
comparison to John Gay's Trivia, or The Art of Walking the
Streets of London, in which he tried, as pliantly as he tried
everything, to imitate Swift's "Shower." Though it is Gay's
best-remembered poem, and a lively handbook on eighteenth-
88 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
century manners, Trivia is partly buried under the peraphrasis
from which Swift was so wonderfully free. Swift's phrase
"swelling kennels" becomes Gay's "the kennels swell";
"oil'd umbrella's sides" becomes "th' umbrella's oily shed";
and "spouts run clatt'ring" becomes "spouts on heedless
men their torrents pour." When Gay comes to write of the
housewives' overshoes, he cannot get past them ("But, 0!
forget not, Muse, the patten's praise"), and his episode on
their invention continues for seventy lines, tiresome even in
If Swift had concluded with these pen-sketches of London-
ers in the rain, he would not have written the poem that was
"beyond anything that has been written of the kind," or that
ridiculed out of existence the poetic "corruptions" Dryden
had fostered, or that caused Hippolyte Taine to protest "toutes
ces ordures." The eddying momentum of the last eleven lines
of Swift's poem increases to whirl his descriptive sketches
along with the drowned puppies and dung that offended Taine.
The whirlpool of the final triplet is meant to offend so that
Dryden's lines like these, conspicuously decorated with brack-
ets, will be forever distasteful:
'Twas fram'd, at first, our oracle t'enquire;
But, since our sects in prophecy grow higher,
The text inspires not them; but they the text inspire.
What curses on thy blasted name will fall!
When age to age their legacy shall call;
For all must curse the woes that must descend on a
(Dryden, "The Medal," 164-166, 260-262)
To ridicule this, Swift gives us an unlovely triple-rhyme of
"blood," "mud," and "flood," with a tumble of dead cats
and turnip-tops swirling in the long final Alexandrine of which
Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours, seem to tell
What streets they sail'd from, by the sight and smell.
THE SIN OF WIT 89
They, as each torrent drives, with rapid force
From Smithfield, or St. Pulchre's shape their course,
And in huge confluent join at Snow-Hill Ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn-Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood
Drown'd puppies, stinking sprats, all drench'd in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood. J
Though the "Shower" was advertised as an imitation of
Virgil's Georgics, it is less obviously an imitation than
"Baucis and Philemon," 1709. Both are less accurately imi-
tations than they are parodies. When Swift's tongue-in-cheek
tale of Baucis and Philemon is read alongside its versions
from less mischievous hands, the parody shows through. In
Shakespeare's time the most popular of ancient poets was
Ovid, most popularly translated by Arthur Golding, who is
nowadays of interest because Shakespeare picked here and
there among his verses to make better ones. When Golding
comes to the end of Ovid's "Baucis and Philemon," from the
eighth book of the Metamorphoses, he provides a suitable
moral to be carried away as a memento of what happened
"upon the hills of Phrygie." Golding's two honest, devoted
peasants have shared "simple poverty" of coleworts, bacon,
wild berries, endive, radishes, eggs, "a jolly lump of butter,"
nuts, dates, figs, apples, prunes, plums, grapes, honey, and
wine with strangers who turn out to be Jove and Mercury; and,
for reward, their straw hut becomes a temple, they are priest
and priestess, and they finally die together as they had con-
jugally wished, changing into trees, which had not been in
the bargain. In the Phrygian park, says Golding,
I saw the garlands hanging on the boughs, and adding new
I said, "Let them, whom God doth love, be gods, and hon-
Be given to such as honour him with fear and reverence
This is rather charming. Dryden, sharp-witted satirist though
he was, was charmed by "this good-natured story," as he
called it, and translated it like an exercise fron Latin, con-
90 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
And off ring fresher up with pious prayer,
The good, said I, are God's peculiar care,
And such as honour heaven, shall heavenly honour share,
Swift will have none of this. He is spoofing it throughout
his "Baucis and Philemon," where the scene is rural Kent,
the gods are merely saints, the fare is bacon and beer, Phil-
emon is first transformed into a threadbare parson, Baucis
becomes "Madam" in black satin, and they are at last meta-
morphosed into yew-trees:
Till once, a parson of our town
To mend his barn, cut Baucis down;
At which, 'tis hard to be believ'd,
How much the other tree was griev'd:
Grew scrubby, dy'd a-top, was stunted:
So, the next parson stubb'd and burnt it.
"Stubb'd and burnt it" bluntly and wittily replaces Ovid's
garlands in intertwined branches and, through Golding and
Dryden, "reverence true" and "God's peculiar care." Com-
pared to "garlands hanging on the boughs," there is a kind of
insult and cruelty in "stubb'd and burnt it" —and a kind of
honesty and wit that we like to call modern.
Two episodes in the poem, besides the last, seem worth
examining. The metamorphosis of the cottage into a church
is as visually imaginative and surrealistic as some of T.S.
Eliot's metaphors; scenes from Gulliver's third voyage; or
Hogarth's frontispiece to Kirby's Perspective, in which a
woman leans from a window to hold a candle to the pipe of
a traveler on a distant hill, a bird is almost as large as its
tree, and the church seems to be crawling into the river:
Aloft rose ev'ry beam and rafter;
The heavy wall climb'd slowly after.
The chimney widen'd and grew higher,
Became a steeple with a spire.
THE SIN OP WIT 91
The groaning chair was seen to crawl,
Like a huge snail half up the wall;
There stuck aloft in publick view;
And with small change, a pulpit grew.
Further changes just as grotesque and deliberate turn the
kitchen kettle into a church bell, the roasting-jack into a
steeple clock, and the bedstead into pews where people still
may sleep. But in the second metamorphosis, when old Baucis
and Philemon branch and bud into yew-trees, disconcertedly
talking as they bud, Swift writes more characteristically, fit-
ting easy, exclamatory conversation to the requirements of
rhyme and meter as he later did so wonderfully in the verses
on his death and other poems:
They went by chance, amidst their talk,
To the church-yard, to fetch a walk:
When Baucis hastily cry'd out,
My dear, I see your forehead sprout!
Sprout, quoth the man, what's this, you tell us?
I hope you don't believe me jealous:
But yet, methinks, I feel it true;
And really, yours is budding too—
Nay,— now I cannot stir ray foot;
It feels as if 'twere taking root.
Though ''Baucis and Philemon," even with its inescapably
rude ending of "stubb'd and burnt it," is one of the few
Swiftian poems critics have called lovable, they have taken
most interest in what it reveals of Addison's attempt to
smooth his friend into a more acceptable, properer poet. In
this attempt Addison was, luckily for Swift, in the long run
unsuccessful; but when he took this poem critically in hand,
before it was printed, he found fault with many of its lines,
so that Swift is recorded as saying that "Mr. Addison made
him blot out fourscore, add fourscore, and alter fourscore.
The portion of the manuscript in Swift's hand, now in the
Morgan Library, is longer by fifty-two lines, and is livelier
92 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
by almost as many, than the corresponding version that was
refined and dignified to please Addison. The lines thrown out
were largely Swiftian give-and-take of conversation between
wandering saints and unhospitable householders they call
"a pack of churlish boors." Probably the poem did not suffer
from deletion of
One surly clown lookt out and said,
I'll fling the p pot on your head ....
They call'd at ev'ry dore; Good people,
My comrade's blind, and I'm a creeple.
But it was overnice counsel that changed a phrase like "went
clamb'ring' to "climb' d slowly after" in the description of
the metamorphosed wall. Though Swift gave up the more
visual, more typical, less "poetic" word, he returned to it
a f e w years later, when he had decided to write only like him-
The tortoise thus, with motion slow,
Will clamber up a wall ....
("To the Rev. Mr. Daniel Jackson,"
He knew that neither Addison's vocabulary nor anyone else's
was like his own in which he intentionally wrote on "simple
topicks told in rime," using the plain, live, right word.
Oftener than most writers Swift intends to surprise through
his verses and epigrams, pulling the chair out from under the
inattentive or unsuspecting reader. He surprises the reader
more insidiously, less abruptly, by the trick of parody. His
scorn for cant and his love for satire were congenital, and
especially when the cant was poetic he could not resist a
rhymed parody to scotch the humbug and uncover the insin-
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THE SIN OP WIT 93
cerity oT its poetical gewgaws in the light of satire. In this
attempt he wielded high burlesque to fight, more relentlessly
than any other important figure in English literature, the
"romantic" view of poetry. It is hard to understand why Dr.
Johnson found so little to approve in Swift's verses; for they
take pains to ridicule the mythological imagery, unconvincing
shepherds, and fatuous colloquies that the Doctor deplored
in Milton's "Lycidas" and elsewhere. What Dr. Johnson only
complained of, Swift lambasted: his weapon of complaint
against such a pastoral vacuum, emptily imitated by poets
after Milton, was that of extreme parody in a series of verses.
The parody was deserved. When Thomas Flatman, for in-
stance, wrote of his own son's death, he could not honestly
mourn in poetry, but attitudinized with cries of:
Alexis! dear Alexis! lovely boy!
my Damon! Palaemon! snatch'd away. . .
Through the enameled meadows of Flatman's poems wander
"bright" Castabella, "poor" Celia, Strephon who was "the
wonder of the plains," "dear" Castara, and other lovely
nymphs and sexy shepherds whose names might have come
from labels on bottles of cough-syrup. In one of his pastoral
dialogues Flatman's lovely Parthenia inquires, with ingen-
uousness one does not meet again until Wordsworth's peas-
ants begin asking questions, what is meant by death. When
Castara is reluctant to tell her the cruel truth, Parthenia
winningly persuades to be told it, and having heard, exclaims:
Alas! Why will they use me so,
A virgin that no evil do?
Flatman's odes annoyed the Earl of Rochester, who in satir-
ical ways preceded Swift, into calling their author "that slow
drudge." One of Rochester's own songs begins unprettily,
"Fair Chloris in a pig-sty lay." It is easy to imagine how
much more annoyed than Rochester Swift was at reading of
etherial Parthenias and Celias. He had seen nothing like them
in Dublin or London or anywhere else in real life, doubted
that anyone else had, and objected to their interminable poetic
94 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
rendezvous. He set out to remind the world of what human
beings are really like:
Or should a porter make enquiries
For Chloe, Sylvia, Phillis, Iris;
Be told the lodging, lane, and sign,
The bow'rs that hold those nymphs divine;
Fair Chloe would perhaps be found
With footmen tippling under ground;
The charming Sylvia beating flax,
Her shoulders mark'd with bloody tracks;
Bright Phillis mending ragged smocks;
And radiant Iris in the pox.
These are the goddesses enroll'd
In Curll's Collections, new and old,
Whose scoundrel fathers would not know 'em,
If they should meet 'em in a poem.
("To Stella, Who Collected and Trans-
cribed His Poems," 39-52)
Swift made certain that these young ladies, no longer arti-
ficially "fair," "charming," "bright," and "radiant," should
be met in poetry. If the reader is disarmed by the prepossess-
ing title of "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Written
for the Honour of the Fair Sex," 1731, he is warned of parody
by the second line of the poem, where a single negative makes
Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane,
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain;
but the reader is hardly prepared for the dreadful disrobing
that follows, revealing Corinna as a prostitute ravaged by
disease and bad dreams. And although we are charmingly
told of the heroine in "Strephon and Chloe," 1731, that
So beautiful a nymph appears
But once in twenty thousand years,
THE SIN OF WIT 95
the proof of her loveliness is somewhat unconventional: she
Would so discreetly things dispose,
None ever saw her pluck a rose.
Her dearest comrades never caught her
Squat on her haras, to make maid's water.
That is surprising and witty parody of the nymphs of poetry
whose only necessity in life is to charm sighs from an inex-
haustible retinue of shepherds whose only necessity, in turn,
is to be charmed, and whose sheep, if there were enough to
go around, must certainly have wandered from the enameled
plains and perished.
In Swift's "Pastoral Dialogue," 1729, there are no cries of
"0 my Damon" nor any Celadon's whimper of "I faint, I gasp,
I pant, my eyes are set." Though they speak hilariously with-
in the established pattern for pastoral dialogues, Swift's Der-
mot and Sheela, digging weeds, are realistically rural in
appearance, ways, and soeech. They declare their love and
jealousy in talk of a shared crust and tobacco-plug, torn
breeches, and kisses stolen behind a ditch. There are sur-
prising contrasts like that when the innocently poetic line
"Sharp are the stones, take thou this rushy mat" is followed
by a flatly unpoetic explanation of the offer: "The hardest
bum will bruise with sitting squat."
When you with Oonah stood behind a ditch,
I peept, and saw you kiss the dirty bitch.
Dermot, how could you touch those nasty sluts I
I almost wisht this spud were in your guts.
If Oonah once I kiss'd, forbear to chide:
Her aunt's my gossip by my father's side:
But, if I ever touch her lips again,
May I be doom'd for life to weed in rain.
96 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
0, could I earn for thee, my lovely lass,
A pair of brogues to bear thee dry to Mass!
But see, where Nor ah with the sowins comes—
Then let us rise, and rest our weary bums.
"Dirty bitch," "guts," and "weed in rain" are substituted
for "sly charmer," "heart," and "woo in vain" from the kind
of dialogue Swift is ridiculing. The change of the single last
word in the final line, from "Then let us rise, and rest our
weary LIMBS," caps the wit of the parody.
Herbert Davis has pointed out the same effect at the con-
clusion of one of Swift's lampoons on Marlborough, "A Satir-
ical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," 1722.
"It begins," Mr. Davis says, "so quietly, with a sneer that
is hardly perceptible, proceeds with a few crude jokes, as
though the subject were worth no serious consideration, and
ends with a sort of dismissal as complete as it is devas-
His Grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that Mighty Warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he's gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He'd wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the news-papers we're told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
'Twas time in conscience he should die.
Let pride be taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing's a Duke;
From all his ill-got honours flung,
Turn'd to that dirt from whence he sprung.
THE SIN OF WIT 97
Substitute "earthly honours" and "to that dust," Mr. Davis
suggests, and the final lines are conventionally elegiac, and
hackneyed. But Swift's parody is insidious as well as witty.
It not only expresses distaste for Marlborough, makes a crit-
icism of vainglory, and shows a scorn for a certain fashion
in literature, but through honest realism it makes pompous
cant phrases forever absurd, just as a caricature can wickedly
make a face forever laughable. Contrasted with Swift's "Sa-
tirical Elegy," Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke
of Wellington" seems a little embarrassing, however sincerely
felt that poem may have been. Read alongside Swift's "Turn'd
to that dirt from whence he sprung," Thomas Flatman's epitaph
on the Earl of Sandwich seems unctuous and insincere in
phrases like "dust of that illustrious man," "nobly courted
death," and "Sandwich the Good, the Great, the Brave."
For the most part Swift seems to have had only types rather
than specific poems in mind when he wrote his burlesques.
One of his rhymed attacks on Richard Tighe, however, is a
line-for-line parody of the poem "Clad All in White," by Cow-
ley, whom Swift had once seriously wished to imitate. Now,
in "Clad All in Brown," 1728, he imitates only to make a
vicious caricature of what in his youth seemed beautiful. In
six stanzas that had sung amorously of a mistress' fair charms,
he changes pretty into coarse, with a vocabulary of "stink,"
"brute," "mud," "turds," "foulness," "filth," and "bawds."
From CLAD ALL IN WHITE From CLAD ALL IN BROWN
Fairest thing that shines below, Foulest brute that stinks below,
Why in this robe dost thou Why in this brown dost thou
Wouldst thou a white most per- For, would'st thou make a
feet show, fouler show,
Thou must at all no garment Thou must go naked all the
Thou wilt then seem much whit- Fresh from the mud a wallow-
er so, ing sow
Than winter when 'tis cold Would then be not so brown
with snow. as thou.
98 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
Like the clever and cruel political caricatures of Gillray,
this parody is meant to vex its subject at whatever cost to
niceties. Like Gillray's political cartoons with which public
figures were later mercilessly bombarded, "Clad All in Brown"
was only one of the libelous insults with which Swift vexed
his enemy Richard Tighe.
Swift's most perfect parody in verse, whose melodious
lines are a pastiche of ready-made, high-toned phrases, is
"A Love Song, in the Modern Taste," 1733. All its "harmon-
ious numbers," "soft Elysian plains," and "dying vows,"
adapted from Ovid, are soothingly fitted together to make al-
most no sense at all. Swift, the great admirer of naturalness
and common sense, fixes a Cupid here, a Cynthia there, to
create the familiar sound of conventional love verse but care-
fully goes no further than sound. He observes in his first
stanza that Art is here usurping the place of Nature (or Nature
realized through Ovid). It is Art in the vacuous taste that
annoyed him into writing parody:
Flutt'ring spread thy purple pinions,
Gentle Cupid o'er ray heart;
I a slave to thy dominions;
Nature must give way to Art.
Mild Arcadians, ever blooming,
Nightly nodding o'er your flocks,
See my weary days consuming,
All beneath yon flow'ry rocks.
Melancholly smooth Meander,
Swiftly purling in a round,
On thy margin lovers wander,
With thy flow'ry chaplets crown'd.
Thus when Philomela drooping,
Softly seeks her silent mate;
Se e the bird of Juno stooping.
Melody resigns to Fate.
THE SIN OP WIT 99
Coming from the hand of Swift, "A l/ove Song" might be ex-
pected to bring surprise through his characteristic substitu-
tion of coarse words and phrases. The reader awaits a "bitch"
or "bum" or "stink" to appear suddenly among the eight
flowery stanzas; but the surprise this time comes instead
from the poem's never rising, never shifting from its sweet,
silly melody. And "Melody," the verses conclude, if there is
a conclusion, "resigns to Fate."*
Just as his "Love Song" wittily criticizes the sublimity-
without-sense that seemed to be the fate of honest poetry, so
"A Cantata" burlesques what Swift felt was wrong with music
in the Augustan Age. "The town is running mad after a new
opera," he once wrote to Ambrose Philips. "Poetry and good
sense are dwindling like echo with repetition and voice . . .
A good old lady five miles out of town asked me the other
day what these uproars were that her daughter was always
going to." It was a time of operas, choruses, and choirs:
everybody sang, as Hogarth shows in his engraving of the
indignant musician outside whose window the entire town is
making music, even the chimney-sweep singing in his chim-
ney. It was a time of long-winded cantatas and Italianate
songs whose words grandiloquently and repetitiously sought
to imitate musical notes rather than make good sense. So
Swift wrote words for a cantata in which the operatic eunuchs,
prima donnas, or neighborhood chorus might hold their long
notes, rush excitedly through staccato phrases, trill, soar,
warble, and be free of the encumbrance of meaning. It con-
See, See. . . . Ce-lia, Ce-lia
Dies, dies, dies, dies, dies, dies, dies, dies,
While true lov-ers eyes
•It has not hitherto been noted that these final stanzas re-
semble lines from Pope, to whom the poem has sometimes
Thus on Meander's flow'ry margin lies
The expiring swan, and as he sings he dies.
(The Rape of the Lock, V, 65-66)
100 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OF WIT
Weep-ing sleep, sleep-ing weep, weep-ing sleep. (Slow)
Bo peep, bo peep, bo peep, bo peep, peep, bo bo peep.
Thomas Arne, the talented composer of settings for texts
from Milton and Shakespeare, as well as for Thomson's "Rule
Britannia," wanted to set music to this cantata-to-end-can-
tatas; and Faulkner, Swift's publisher in Dublin, hoped it
would "run more than the Beggar's Opera...." But when
Faulkner printed it with music by the Rev. John Echlin the
year after Swift's death, there was no such success.
Swift himself had suggested Gay's writing the "Newgate
pastoral, among the whores and thieves there," that became
the most famous musical parody of its kind, laughing the
opera-singing Italians back into the wings of the stage. When
tunes from The Beggar's Opera were sung everywhere in Lon-
don, and even in Dublin, Swift wrote to Gay to inquire es-
pecially about the popularity of the song beginning "When
you censure the age." That song and two others, beginning
"Through all the employments of life" and "Since laws were
made for ev'ry degree," have sometimes been credited to
Swift, who may at least have made suggestions for them.
"THE LEGION CLUB"
One of Swift's poems growing from indignant comment upon
topical events holds critical respect as a diatribe almost un-
equaled in the literature of the world. Characterized as the
bitterest of his philippics, most terrible of his satires, and a
nightmare of "black fire and horror," "The Legion Club,"
1736, seems never to have been read without a measure of
awe, Dr. Delany going so far as to think it Swift's greatest
accomplishment in verse. It expresses his acrimonious con-
tempt for the Irish Parliament he named the Legion Club after
the Unclean Spirit that answered: "My name is Legion: for we
are many." In jest that was not wholly playful Swift had
written to his friend Lord Orrery that rather than keep com-
THE SIN OP WIT 101
pany with his Lordship who had just come "reeking from that
abominable Club," he would leave Dublin; and to Sheridan he
wrote: "The Club meets in a week, and I determine to leave
the town as soon as possible, for I am not able to live with
the air of such rascals. . . ." Early in 1736, when the House
of Commons, by resolution, favored the cattle-grazers' wish
to be rid of tithes from which the clergy benefited, Swift ex-
pressed his accumulated resentment. Fulfilling through rhyme
his wish for violent action, he would have the Irish Parliament
House blasted by the devil and all the "rascals" shut in cells
like gibbering madmen.
The opening lines are casually and disarmingly good-natured,
with a humorous rhyme of "oft I" and "lofty," a half-told jest,
a description of the Parliament House, and no suggestion of
the unleashed invective to follow. But when the question of
the ninth line— "Tell us, what this pile contains?"— 'receives
an answer, the invective, though still only snarling, begins.
It snaps and bites by the time Swift puts the "abominable
Club" in a place for lunatics and goes to watch them, each
With a passage left to creep in
And a hole above for peeping.
Lending elevation of phrase, for contrast and juxtaposition of
styles, the Aeneid is imitated:
All ye gods, who rule the soul
Styx, through Hell whose waters roll!
Let me be allow' d to tell
What I heard in yonder Hell.
Near the door an entrance gapes,
Gouded round with antic shapes;
Poverty, and Grief, and Care,
Causeless Joy, and true Despair;
Discord periwigg'd with snakes,
See the dreadful strides she takes.
102 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
But the borrowed Latin Hell soon gives way to an eighteenth*
century English Bedlam in which Swift now converses matter-
of-factly and characteristically with the keeper, as though on
a dreadful and fantastic sightseeing jaunt. He observes four-
teen of the "rascals" as they "sit a picking straws" and
"dabble in their dung." Alongside these manifestations of
lunacy Swift shows himself, representing the rational world,
casually tipping the keeper, making interested inquiries, and
taking snuff as he watches the madmen.
When I saw the Keeper frown,
Tipping him with half a crown;
Now, said I, we are alone,
Name your heroes, one by one.
Keeper, shew me where to fix
On the puppy pair of Dicks;
By their lanthorn jaws and leathern,
You might swear they both are brethren:
Dick Fitz-Baker, Dick the Player,
Old acquaintance, are you there?
Dear companions hug and kiss,
Toast old Glorious in your piss.
Tye them Keeper in a tether,
Let them stare and stink together;
Both are apt to be unruly,
Lash them daily, lash them duly,
Though 'tis hopeless to reclaim them,
Scorpion rods perhaps may tame them.
Critics who have called "The Legion Club" a nightmare of
demoniac horror have had in mind the cumulative effect of its
railing abuse. The effect is a conscious one: lines like "Lash
them daily,, lash them duly," for instance, perform exactly,
through meter and sound, what Swift intended of them. And he
turns from violence to elegant malice:
Keeper, I must now retire,
You have done what I desire:
THE SIN OP WIT 103
But I feel my spirits spent,
With the noise, the sight, the scent.
Pray be patient, you shall find
Half the best are still behind:
You have hardly seen a score,
I can shew two hundred more.
Keeper, I have seen enough,
Taking then a pinch of snuff;
I concluded, looking round 'em,
May their God, the Devil confound 'em.
"I have written a very masterly poem on the Legion Club,"
Swift wrote, "which, if the printer will be condemned to be
hanged for it, you will see in a three-penny book..." For
him, its effectiveness lay partly in the fact that it was a li-
belous, hanging matter. Alfred Lord Tennyson, his son has
recorded, "was greatly impressed by the deadly earnest and
savagery, and let me say sadness of Swift's 'Legion Club.'
He has more than once read it to me. . ." For Tennyson the
metrical devices, the drama, the power of feeling, the deadly
earnestness, the paradox, and the tragic irony in the poem
would have been of interest; but the "sadness," one is in-
clined to think, he read into it from Victorian elegies.
Perhaps the real surprise in "The Legion Club," as in
Swift's other political lampoons, springs out of the expert,
appropriate expression of an essentially prosaic content. This
effect is even more surprising in his quieter poems that do not
try so desperately, for whatever reason, to shame and irritate
and call names. When Swift wrote on "simple topicks told in
rime," applying the language of prose to verse, he was still
the great master of wit. In A Critical History of English
Poetry Grierson and Smith find surprise in the effect of wit
that comes from Swift's straightforward, sensible prose ad-
mirably presented as verse. They perhaps have in mind the
wonderful conversational poems, the homely poems to Stella
that could serve as models for all sincere statements of af-
104 SWIFT HAD THE SIN OP WIT
fection,and Swift's self-conscious poems on himself. Actually,
of course, as we have seen and shall further see, what ap-
pears to be "straightforward" in his verse, and in his prose,
is very often an intentional half-truth, cold irony, or the most
walloping kind of parody.
Sometimes Swift's urgent wish to describe the ridiculous or
vile made his strongest verse seem to him too ineffectual and
blind for his purpose, and he wanted the added power of visual
vexation like that in Hogarth's later caricatures of Wilkes and
Charles Churchill. Toward the end of "The Legion Club,"
when he had vilified, abused, and denounced the men he
hated, Swift expressed this wish for assistance in his wit:
How I want thee, humorous Hogart?
Thou I hear, a pleasant rogue art;
Were but you and I acquainted,
Every monster should be painted;
You should try your graving tools
On this odious group of fools;
Draw the beasts as I describe 'em,
Form their features, while I gibe them;
Draw them like, for I assure you,
You will need no car'caturcw
Draw them so that we may trace
All the soul in every face.
Though Hogarth preferred "characters" to "caricaturas," he
shared Swift's wish to reform by any means, protesting the
excesses of contemporary Dutch art, for example, by public
laughter, ridicule, and by parodies "scratched in the true
Dutch taste." Both the artist and the poet for their purposes
sometimes depicted vulgar life in which the depraved mother
pours gin down her infant's throat, the politicians are maudlin-
drunk, the old man makes water against a wall, and Justice
is a blowzy goddess with only one eye covered. They used,
too, for their purposes the surprise of juxtaposition wherein
the powdered and beribboned fop stands in the street with
his toe almost touching the dead, decaying cat.
THE SIN OP WIT 105
We do not nowadays deplore the invention and surprise in
Hogarth's engravings, but instead praise them for their wit
and genius. In Swift's poems of wit— "The Day of Judgement,"
"A Description of a City Shower," "Baucis and Philemon,"
"The Legion Club," and perhaps even some others that are
almost forgotten— there is an analogous show of genius that
waits for general praise.
HE RECONCIL'D DIVINITY AND WIT
To vex the whole world was Swift's intention. Poetic
variety, wicked wit, and the horse-laugh and dry rub of humor
were useful implements in the hands of this churchman and
reformer, who meant to persuade, scold, and preach against
From the planet of my birth,
I encounter vice with mirth.
As my method of reforming
Is by laughing, not by storming . . .
("Epistle to a Lady," 141-142, 229-230)
He could spend his rage in a jest, he said, and the jest more
likely than a serious sermon might assist in driving out man-
kind's hypocrisy and hate. Righteously indignant rather than
cheaply cynical or sadistic, he thought wit the most effective
way to express his indignation: the lash for him was more
persuasive than the cudgel. In his life-long earnest attempt
THE SIN OP WIT 107
to expose vice and folly, he recognized his similarity to
Latin satirists who knew the power of the ridiculous:
It is well observed by Horace,
Ridicule has greater pow*r
To reform the world, than sour.
("Epistle to a Lady," 198-200)
And so in many of his poems he sought through laughter to
call the age's attention to its ills, using wit to shock man-
kind into sanity, often distorting in a furious, grotesque fash-
ion meant to remind the sick world of its own distortions.
The incorporation of divinity and wit is masterly in Swift's
prose pieces like "An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing
of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, Be At-
tended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps not Produce
Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby." Their foolery
has a grave and earnest purpose. Using verse, Swift similarly
delivers a sermon with an appended moral in the witty "Beasts
Confession to the Priest," 1732, which carries the subtitle
"On Observing How Most Men Mistake Their Own Talents."
Like an old beast-fable it draws a parallel between talking
animals and men to show our universal folly of admitting only
to faults that are virtues in excess. Ironic lines that slyly
comment on hypocrisy in religion introduce the fable:
When beasts could speak (the learned say
They still can do so every day)
It seems they had religion then,
As much as now we find in men.
Commanded to confess their sins, the wolf admits that he
has innocently broken his fast; the ass confesses himself a
wit; the swine is over-proud of his shape and beauty; the
ape is a stoic; and the goat explains his chastity. Among
men, likewise, the lawyer insists he has never squeezed a
needy client; the knave who seeks a place pretends he cannot
flatter; the chaplain trusts only to merit for promotion; the
108 DIVINITY AND WIT
doctor is too altruistic; the card-sharper is never a winner;
The statesman tells you with a sneer,
His fault is to be too sincere;
And, having no sinister ends,
Is apt to disoblige his friends*
He thought it base for men in stations,
To crowd the court with their relations:
His country was his dearest mother,
And ev'ry virtuous man his brother . . .
In those mocking lines Swift writes with more power and
persuasion than when he occasionally seeks to be as homi-
letic as any poet concerned less with wit than with a moral.
But even when his subject is "The Birth of Manly Virtue,
from Callimachus," 1725, he turns it into a pleasant tribute
to Lord Carteret; his "Desire and Possession," 1727, is the
fairly exciting allegory of brothers who both perish in their
race toward Fortune; and "On Censure," 1721, like some of
his greater poems, drops suddenly in its final couplet from an
impersonal discussion of "detracting people" to a personal
and colloquial solution:
The most effectual way to baulk
Their malice, is-— to let them talk.
Swift's sermons, miscellaneous writings on religion, and
"moral" verses are often in a style deceptively proper and
plain. Another poet-preacher, John Donne, had composed both
his sermons and poems from subtle conceits and knotted loops
of rhetoric. In prayers and sacred hymns he played with puns
even more rudely forced than those in his love-poems. Now, a
century later, Swift's sermon "On the Causes of the Wretched
Condition of Ireland," for instance, or his sermon "On Doing
Good," deals with problems of the day rn plain language in-
tended to touch the common sense of its most ignorant hearer.
THE SIN OP WIT 109
Indeed, in his "'Letter to a Young Gentleman Lately Enter'd
into Holy Orders," Swift warns against the old seventeenth-
century wit based upon style:
I cannot forbear warning you in the most earnest man-
ner against endeavouring at wit in your sermons, because
by the strictest computation, it is very near a million to
one that you have none; and because too many of your
calling have consequently made themselves everlastingly
ridiculous by attempting it. I remember several young
men in this town, who could never leave the pulpit under
half a dozen conceits; and this faculty adhered to those
gentlemen a longer or shorter time exactly in proportion
to their several degrees of dulness; accordingly, I am
told that some of them retain it to this day. I heartily
wish the brood were at an end.
In this "Letter to a Young Gentleman* ' first appeared the
renowned phrase that Dr. Johnson applied to Swift's poems;
"Proper words in proper places," Swift tells the Young
Gentleman, "make the true definition of a style." He goes
on to advise against obscurities, ambiguities, and vagrant
emotion in the pulpit, where the simple purpose of a sermon
should not be to spellbind but to tell people their duty and
then convince them of its truth. Do not attempt to explain
religious mysteries, he warns the Young Gentleman: for,
once explained, they are mysteries no longer. Do not waste
breath in preaching against atheism, he adds: for atheists
will not be in the church to hear, and it is foolhardy to proffer
doubts that churchgoers may find attractive.
Swift's own sermons and "didactic" poems— they could
hardly, like Donne's, be called "divine"— are seldom so
simple and proper as they pretend. They can be as ironical
as the "Argument against Abolishing Christianity" or as
mocking as the "abstract" of Anthony Collins's "Discourse
of Free Thinking," purportedly put into "plain English .. .
for the use of the poor." They borrow the "bite" of Jove on
Judgment Day, use la bagatelle for purposes of divinity, and
draw a moral from the foolish bric-a-brac of a coquette's mind.
They bring the force of wit through irony and paradox and
110 DIVINITY AND WIT
Shock alone, however, has been the reaction to certain of
his poems. Though shocking literature, if it really is literature,
has a way of turning respectable with time, and what censors
frown upon in one age may in another be memorized by school-
boys for their teachers, after two centuries there are certain
poems by Jonathan Swift that are embarrassing to scholars,
shunned by anthologists, and unknown to almost everyone
else. Even the most dispassionate modern critics have called
these poems nasty, noxious, disgusting, and painful, and have
hastened past with eyes averted. "Strephon and Chloe,"
1731, describing a wedding night, seems especially to have
frightened readers with its casual talk of armpits and toes.
It is otherwise hard to understand why the poem has not been
recognized as one of the wittiest and one of the most serious
of all Swift's efforts. Its surprises are thick-coming and varied.
Parody in the poem is first suggested by the borrowed, pastor-
al names of the bridal pair; but even with "hampers full of
bleeding hearts" and "infant Loves with purple wings," the
parody would not surprise without Swiftian lines like
. . . pigeons billing, sparrows treading,
Fair emblems of a fruitful wedding.
The rites performM, the parson paid,
In state return'd the grand parade . . .
Here the humorous joining of formal and colloquial serves
as the motif for the whole poem: this is Strephon's story of
how he idealized his bride as a deity only to discover her a
human animal like him, his poetic dream becoming as much a
down-to-earth reality as the shameless sparrows and the fee
for the parson. At first poor Strephon, perplexed and embar-
THE SIN OF WIT ill
rassed in his nightcap, does not know how to approach his
The weather and his love were hot:
Can such a deity endure
A mortal human touch impure?
How did the humbled swain detest
His prickled beard, and hairy breast!
His night-cap border' d round with lace
Could give no softness to his face.
To reassure himself he reflects that "A certain goddess, God
knows who," once bestowed love on mortal man; and he has
hopes. But his Chloe, unlike the goddess, is unreceptive—
for a very human reason that Swift expresses in an elegant
couplet. Incredulous, Strephon becomes aware that his celes-
tial nymph (who has drunk twelve cups of tea) "brings a
vessel into bed":
Carminative and diuretick,
Will damp all passion sympathetick . . .
But, soon with like occasions prest,
He boldly sent his hand in quest,
(Inspir'd with courage from his bride)
To reach the pot on t'other side.
And as he fill'd the reeking vase,
Let fly a rouzer in her face.
The little Cupids hov'ring round,
(As pictures prove) with garlands crown'd,
Abasht at what they saw and heard,
Flew off, nor evermore appear'd.
Though he may cling fast to the idea that certain subjects
are not allowed in poetry, the modern reader will recognize
that the first-quoted couplet, with its "Carminative and diu-
retick," would grace the polysyllabic "Mr. Eliot's Sunday
112 DIVINITY AND WIT
Morning Service." But while there are calloused feet, sweat,
and dirty hands in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, there is no
"rouzer."The surprise of the line in which that word appears,
staling the reader to laughter or at least to exclamation,
dispels the parody of pastoral verse. Immediately, then, Swift
shows cupids in flight; and from the unreal, disappointing
world of pretty pictures, Strephon and his Chloe change to
one still more disappointing. They accept, Swift says, a
coarse world without beauty, decency, or concern for opinion;
and they "learn to call a spade a spade." For Swift the re-
lationship characterized by Strephon's sudden rouzer is even
more offensive than hypocritical pretense of otherworldliness.
For over a hundred lines he earnestly draws his moral from the
story: marriage should be built of enduring materials, he says:
and, because beauty and youth are fleeting, they are not suf-
On sense and wit your passion found,
By decency cemented round;
Let prudence and good nature strive,
To keep esteem and love alive.
Then, come old age whene'er it will,
Your friendship shall continue still:
And thus a mutual gentle fire,
Shall never but with life expire.
Here the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, hoping he has
prodded his reader into awareness and startled him into atten-
tion, confronts him with a sermon of wise advice. Sense and
wit, he wrote more than once in moral earnestness, are the
best foundation for a way of life. "I have been only a man of
rhymes," he said in a letter, ". . . yet never without a moral
view"; it was a view that commended Stella, whom he re-
spected most among women, for her "fund of wit and sense"
and found Vanessa, as a "nymph of wit and sense," pleasing
to his eye. When it is read alongside conventionally naughty
songs of the period, in which the institution of marriage it-
self is kicked at, Swift's poem seems obviously didactic and
"moral" in purpose.
THE SIN OF WIT 113
Like "Strephon and Chloe," Swift's earlier poem called
"The Progress of Marriage," 1722, presents the case of a
husband and wife who share no "mutual gentle fire." It de-
picts the contempt of a young coquette for her older husband
and concludes with Swift's vindictive expression of contempt
for the coquette, soon widowed. Lacking either wit or sense,
their empty marriage provides an entertaining subject from
which to draw a serious moral observation:
Her spouse desires his coffee soon,
She rises to her tea at noon » , -
And drops him at the church, to pray
While she drives on to see the play . . .
(He) goes alone to take his rest
In bed, where he can spare her best.
No common ligament that binds
The various textures of their minds,
Their thoughts, and actions, hopes, and fears,
Less corresponding than their years.
(37-38, 81-82, 89-90, 33-36)
"The Progress of Marriage" and "Strephon and Chloe"
show admirably how Swift reconciled divinity and wit. Per-
haps not so clinically interesting as the nineteenth-century
idea of a mad, disgusting Swift, the idea of a moralist and
reformer is nevertheless the truer one. It is nothing new. Dr.
Delany described his friend's poems as "prescriptions of an
able physician, who had, in truth, the health of his patients
at heart, but laboured to attain that end, not only by strong
emetics, but also, by all the most nauseous, and offensive
drugs, and potions, that could be administered." Recent
studies by Quintana and Davis have stressed the element of
moral satire in much that Swift wrote, especially in the fourth
book of Gulliver's Travels that is so often frowned upon, the
cold-blooded Modest Proposal, and the "unprintable" poems.
An earnest call to the conscience of the world, to be heard
in those works, is sounded explicitly in the epitaph Swift
114 DIVINITY AND WIT
wrote for his tomb in St. Patrick's Cathedral. The "saeva
indignatio" of that epitaph is quoted frequently enough, but
there is more to it:
ET MTARE, SI POTERIS,
STRENUUM PRO VIRILI LIBER-
A dean's appeal for us to serve human liberty has not stuck
in the mind like his hairy Yahoos, servings of infants' flesh,
and women in their dressing-rooms. Because he sometimes
chose these subjects, Swift's name has been pinned to anon-
ymous rhymes, like "The Art of Wenching," that had only
coarseness of their own and needed his name to lend them
"THE LADY'S DRESSING-ROOM"
Women in their dressing-rooms were for Swift a symbol of
mankind's vanity, hypocrisy, and imperfection. With this
symbol he at times merely amused himself and at other times
suggested a moral as T.S. Eliot does with his bored typist
who accepts love on her divan. Although Eliot provides a
Swiftian inventory of undergarments and dressing-room para-
phernalia, he is restrained from stepping into his poem with
a plain statement of distaste like Swift's:
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison'd.
That is the concluding line to "A Beautiful Young Nymph
Going to Bed," but it could serve as well to conclude "The
Lady's Dressing-Roorc," "The Progress of Beauty," or
"Cassinus and Peter." In each there is the poetic counter-
THE SIN OP WIT 115
part to Captain Lemuel Gulliver's displeasure at what he
saw and smelled in the apartments of the gigantic maids of
honor in Brobdingnag:
For, they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on
their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their
toylet directly before their naked bodies; which, I am
sure, to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or
from giving me any other (e)motions than those of horror
and disgust. Their skins appeared so coarse and uneven,
so variously coloured when I saw them near, with a mole
here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging
from it thicker than pack-threads; to say nothing further
concerning the rest of their persons. Neither did they at
all scruple while I was by, to discharge what they had
drunk, to the quantity of at least two hogsheads, in a
vessel that held above three tuns.
In all commentaries, observations, and essays on Gulliver's
Travels, though there is complaint about the indignity of
Swift's coarseness in naming nakedness and excretory pro-
cesses, there is no misunderstanding of his serious intention
to deflate human pride and folly. Brobdingnagian maidens
were charming companions to their Brobdingnagian friends,
but they were human; being human, they were imperfect. A
misanthrope, perhaps, Swift nevertheless had enough faith in
human beings to try, even by trick and jest and shock, to re-
form that imperfection.
In "A Beautiful Young Nymph," 1731, he describes the
wages of sin as effectively as a preacher shouting hell-fire
and brimstone, or the photographs in a medical treatise, or
the scenes drawn by Hogarth for "A Harlot's Progress." The
rather obtrusive moral affixed to Moll Hackabout's disinte-
gration and punishment as Hogarth draws her, when she is
revealed as a hopelessly miserable creature in miserable sur-
roundings, is the moral Swift affixes to the picture of Corinna
going to bed. She is a "batter'd, strolling toast" of London
streets. There is the fascination here of sordid detail like
Hogarth's in the exact setting down of hideous wig, littered
room, and despair as Corinna returns to her bed at midnight
116 DIVINITY AND WIT
to remove daubed paint, artificial hair and eyebrows, glass
eye, teeth, cheek-plumpers, breast-props, corsets, and bol-
sters—unlacing, pulling, and untwisting to be free of them one
by one, like magicians' properties. This is not sufficiently
unattractive for Swift's purpose. The reader is spared nothing:
With gentlest touch, she next explores
Her shankers, issues, running sores,
Effects of many a sad disaster;
And then to each applies a plaister.
If the harlot dreams, it is tormentedly and fitfully of prison,
deportation, watchmen, constables, and bullies. Imagining
she feels the whip-lash, she screams in her sleep.
"The Lady's Dressing-Roora," 1730, is more dreadful
still. Swift's eighteenth-century acquaintance Mrs. Pilkington
recorded that her old mother threw up her dinner when she
read the poem; and that has been almost the reaction of per-
sons as varied as James Russell Lowell, Hippolyte Taine,
and Aldous Huxley, though their explanations of the reaction
are also varied. Swift's friend Lord Orrery sought to convince
himself that "The Lady's Dressing-Room" was intended as a
warning to inexperienced youth. For Taine in the next cen-
tury the poem was an emotional affront that made him com-
plain of Swift that "il a toujours le microscope en main."
Even modern writers who have the microscope of psychology
always in hand, object to the poem: though naturalistic de-
tails figure large in the writings of D.H. Lawrence and Aldous
Huxley, they both find the poem shocking, not because it
disgusts but because of its unpleasant picture of bodily func-
tions that they feel should be celebrated. Their diagnoses of
Swift are in terms of undeveloped sexual consciousness, fear
of taboo words, and infantilism (Huxley pretends to think that
a twentieth-century Swift would write not about Yahoos but
about Peter Pan); and they let the subject go with that.
If a sensitive critic like Coleridge, a hundred years after
Swift's time, dwells upon the false misanthropy, physical
dirt, and coarseness in the writings, and if a sensible critic
fJL4ta/6&*i*u* **£*:' /v\ C-
THE SIN OP WIT 117
like George Orwell, a hundred years later still, calls Swift
a diseased writer who magnifies and distorts in poems like
"A Lady's Dressing-Room," it is important to see what Swift
really says. In the first place, he is hardly more scatological
than others of his contemporaries. It is Smollett, and not
Swift, who lingers in Adventures of an Atom upon the sub-
ject of dunghills, scorbutic dysentery, close-stools, and the
rite of posterior-worship; and it is Prior, not Swift, whose
poem "On a Fart, Let in the House of Commons" may be
found among his other poems entitled "God is Love," "On
Exodus iii. 14," and "Charity Never Faileth." Gay and Pope,
as well as Swift, thought it amusing to write verses about
the Goddess Cloacina; and the scatological was expected in
lampoons such as those against the Puritans. With Swift, how-
ever, the subject is not always merely funny. It becomes
sometimes a serious symbol, employed when he wishes to be
most serious and compelling — in A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver,
and certain poems. It becomes a symbol like the rose, the
tower, the darkness, the sunflower, or the turning wheel im-
portant in the work of other poets. "The Queen is well,"
Swift once wrote to Stella, "but I fear will be no long liver;
for I am told she has sometimes the gout in her bowels (I hate
the word bowels).** Hate, obsession, and seriousness make
the symbol a disturbing and effective one when Swift writes
of the Aeolists or the Yahoos, and it is disturbingly intro-
duced into "The Lady's Dressing-Room." It is a symbol
which perhaps better than any other reduces all mankind to
a single level. In Swift's context human excrement is defined
as the antithesis of the sublime.
When Alexander Pope described Belinda's dressing-room
in The Rape of the Lock, intending to mock her pretense of
divinity, he lacked Swift's singleness of purpose: there is a
delicate, dainty charm in Belinda's "Puffs, powders, patches,
Bibles, billet-doux," ivory combs, and shining rows of pins.
Celia's dressing-room as Swift depicts it in his poem is like
a room filled to the ceiling with articles from Brobdingnag,
its combs, towels, handkerchiefs, vials of ointment, tweezers,
and mirror seeming as large as tables and beds. Indeed, be-
cause tables and beds are nowhere mentioned, so far as the
118 DIVINITY AND WIT
reader knows the filthy washbasin and chamberpot comprise
the furniture. The mirror, suitably, is a magnifying glass:
It shew'd the visage of a giant:
A glass that can to sight disclose
The smallest worm in Celia's nose . . .
But if all the objects in the room were seen through a mag-
nifying glass, they could hardly be more formidable. Celia's
smock is soiled with "arm-pits well besmear'd"; there are
stains on the toes of her stockings; her handkerchief is "var-
nished o'er with snuff and snot"; her combs are filled with
a paste of "Sweat, dandriff, powder, lead and hair"; and
her towels are
Begumm'd, bematter'd, and beslim'd;
With dirt, and sweat, and ear-wax grim'd.
If Swift had proceeded no further with "The Lady's Dress-
ing-Room, " it would stand, with its stained garments lying
beside the beribboned synthetic silks and its stinks mixing
with the fog of perfumes, as a wholly successful antidote to
all the lovely, indigestible confections that sometimes pass
as poetry. Swift does go further. He intrudes queerly into the
poem to speak, and speaks queerly: he, rather than Celia's
dirty towels, makes the reader feel uneasy. He introduces an
ingenuous Strephon to discover the sights and smells as he
walks about the dressing-room Celia has left, and his dis-
covery leads him to think of all women in terms of "excre-
mental smell." Professing pity for Strephon, Swift pretends
also to be patronizingly amused by the boy's queasy stomach:
Should I the Queen of Love refuse,
Because she rose from stinking ooze?
When Celia all her glory shows,
If Strephon would but stop his nose;
Who now so impiously blasphemes
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
THE SIN OF WIT 119
Her washes, slops, and every clout,
With which he makes so foul a rout;
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravisht eyes to see
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips rais'd from dung.
In these lines the tone is somehow wrong. Is it after all one
thing for a Restoration wit like the Earl of Dorset to sing
"In grey hair'd Celia's wither'd arras / As nightly Lewis
lay," and quite another thing for Dean Swift to attempt a
similar subject in verse? He appears to have made his own
stomach, like Strephon's, somewhat queasy by examination of
washes and slops, so that even his Swiftian irony, when he
pretends insensitive affection for the gaudy tulips of love,
loses its usual force and seems to mock itself. It is as though
the reformer has been convinced by his own argument and the
preacher has frightened himself with his own description of
Man's flaws and failings.
Although Celia of "The Progress of Beauty," 1719, makes
her appearance in alternating lines of rhyme rather than in
couplets and she is likened, through ingenious conceit, to
the moon, she is the same untidy Celia; and her Strephon is
as easily bamboozled by outward appearances:
To see her from her pillow rise
All reeking in a cloudy steam,
Crackt lips, foul teeth, and gummy eyes,
Poor Strephon, how would he blaspheme!
Still a third Celia, in "Cassinus and Peter," 1731, has driven
Cassinus to distraction by his discovery, like that of the
Strephons, and, one might possibly add, Swift himself, that
she has an alimentary canal.
While these poems were certainly written from moral and
emotional compunctions that moved Swift, they were at the
the same time exercises in wit, as his experiments with
120 DIVINITY AND WIT
certain ideas and repeated phrases show. With slight alter-
ations and shifting of emphasis, one line appears almost iden-
tically in three different poems: in "The Lady's Dressing-
Room" it is "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" That exclama-
tion becomes a melancholy declaration in the last line of
"Cassinus and Peter" and an unbelieving question in "Streph-
on and Chloe." In its context in each poem the line is more
impressive and more shocked than shocking. It represents a
part of Swift's attempt in poetry to state one of the funda-
mental moral and emotional problems of civilized Man, though
in this it is too specialized to succeed wholly.
With less effort, apparently, though he is almost as bold,
W.B. Yeats expresses this same paradoxical idea in his
"Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop," when he links "fair"
with "foul" and observes that the house of love lies in a
"place of excrement." Yeats, who in his later years used
Swift as a model, may very well have learned this speech, so
casually and neatly expressed, from him. But in the witty,
deadly serious, and remarkable "unprintable" poems, which
should more often be printed and read, Swift writes with a
curious insistence hardly to be encountered even in the most
"naturalistic" modern verse.
Swift's is an insistence like that of the woodcut "Cruelty
in Perfection," with which Hogarth hoped to reform the
world, showing the murdered girl with her head severed from
her body, her hand severed from her arm, and, as though that
were not enough, her finger severed from her hand. It is an
insistence necessary for a world that covers its ears or, when
it listens, turns its back. To make himself heard by persons
who complain that life is bad enough without being reminded
of it in poetry, Swift sometimes pretended to sing a ditty or
crack a joke or tell an odd little fable through which his
voice grew very impatient, very insistent, and very loud. When
his disgust shows itself, the poetry is not necessarily dis-
pelled. Disgust and insult, as Shakespeare and Swift and cer-
tain twentieth-century poets prove, are good subjects, perhaps
among the few good ones that have not been worked to death.
THE SIN OF WIT 121
Modern poets have said that if verse is to become human
again, it must first become brutal; that a poet may profit
from the diligent study of hatred; that private disgust and
scornful wit can be the stuff of excellent song; and that
poetry must rub against life itself and every experience of
life whether mean, or common, or speaking it out, unspeak-
able. J.M. Synge, Robert Graves, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and
W.H. Auden have all made this kind of statement and to some
extent have demonstrated it in their poetry. Even Robert Frost,
in 1946, commenting on the crude war poetry of the time, is
reported as having said: "Of what I have read, the best is
the more obscene."
Obscenity, if it ever appears in Swift's poetry, is not an
end in itself, although the modern reader may wish that it
were. Through his private disgust put to rhyme, Swift meant
to ridicule the trumped-up poetry of sighing nymphs and pant-
ing shepherds; to snatch away the old fraud of Woman's simp-
ering perfection; to reform the world's hypocrisy; and, raising
his voice almost didactically, to say aloud in front of every-
one that these frauds are a barrier to the life he praised: a
life founded on sense and honesty and wit.
SHOALS OF CRITICS
Whilst thus I write, vast shoals of critics come,
And on my verse pronounce their saucy doom . . .
("To Mr. Congreve," 213-214)
Within the past twenty-five years there have been published
a selection from Swift's poems in handsome format, a schol-
arly work called Swift's Verse: An Essay, and the entire
poetical writings in three annotated volumes that are a model
of editing. It would seem that Swift has at last been made
accessible and can now speak for himself as a poet, if he has
anything to say. But the selection, introduced somewhat
grudgingly by R. Ellis Roberts and published by the Golden
Cockerel Press in 1928, is limited to only 375 copies. In
Swift's Verse: An Essay (London, 1929) F. Elrington Ball
attempts only to fix the canon of the poems. This is accom-
plished with far greater perspicacity in the three volumes of
The Poems of Jonathan Swift (Oxford, 1937); Harold Williams,
the editor, limits the genuine pieces to two hundred and fifty,
thus dropping one hundred and fifty pieces that were con-
jectural, and he seeks to aid the work of other scholars by
determining dates of composition, collating, and providing
textual apparatus. Anyone dealing seriously with Swift,
THE SIN OP WIT 123
whether primarily with his poetry or not, must refer to Mr.
Williams's edition. But there is still no good edition of the
poems to be read as poems; and there has never been an ex-
tended consideration of what Swift was trying to do in poetry,
to what degree he succeeded, and whether the poems them-
selves can give pleasure to a modern reader.
A few critics, and only very recently, have suggested the
illumination that might come from an undismayed reading of
what Swift wrote in rhyme. Ricardo Quintana in his Mind and
Art of Jonathan Swift, 1936, ventures to defend some of the
poetry against charges of triviality and ugliness. Edmund
Wilson recommends it, in a brief review, as a paradoxical kind
of lyric that sneers and curses while it sings. A.L. Rowse, in
a similarly brief review, goes further to insist that whatever
Swift accomplished in his prose he did as well in his poetry.
Most notably, Herbert Davis in his study of "Swift's View of
Poetry" examines the intention that lay behind the rhymed
curses and sneers. All these critics, even those who offer
unprecedented praise, are careful to describe the critical
hurdle to be jumped and estimate its formidable height. No-
body, they remind us, has ever found sublimity in the poetry
of Jonathan Swift. Hardly anyone has tried to read the poems
sympathetically, separating the enduring from the dross and
judging them by Swift's own critical standards.
When they first appeared, Swift's poems were popular at
the booksellers', read aloud in coffeehouses, and discussed
at court. Their topicality and metrical correctness were equal
sources of interest. Even during Swift's lifetime, however, the
poems were sometimes judged by standards he had specifically
renounced. In 1728, the year Esther Johnson, "Stella," died
and soon after he had begun his final self-exile in Ireland, a
diatribe called Gulliveriana was published in an attempt to
discredit the poems. The frontispiece to Gulliveriana shows
Swift staring out upon the world. He is bewigged and wears a
long gown, not sufficiently long to conceal what is unmis-
takably his cloven, goatish devil's foot Aided by a lopsided
Alexander Pope, he holds a volume of the Miscellanies aloft,
over the horned head of a little satyr. In the foreground of the
124 SHOALS OP CRITICS
engraving another satyr that must be Satan himself clasps one
hand of a posturing, parti-colored Harlequin whose other hand
is raised, thumb to nose. According to the angry author of
Gulliveriana, Swift's prose is "abominable," "bizarre,"
"wild," and "profane." But it is his poetry, quoted and imi-
tated to prove it rubbish, that most offends:
He cannot pretend ever to have writ any one piece, that
can be called a poem, in the genuine sense of the word:
No! he knew himself too well, ever to deviate out of his
burlesque stile and manner; which is rhiming indeed, but
nothing like poetry.... Low, groveling poetry all of it;
and I challenge all the world, to show one good epic,
elegiac or lyric poem of his; one eclogue, pastoral, or
anything like the antients; and as he can't write like
them, so they had no name for such a writer as he is:
And his doggrel and burlesque had banish'd him Rome,
notwithstanding he is so often huzza'd in Dublin.
The name of Jonathan Smedley, the vinegarish author of
Gulliveriana, has a kind of immortality because it is a butt
for abuse in Pope's Dunciad and in rhymed broadsides and
parodies by Swift. Smedley's attacks on Pope and Swift were
venomous. He wrote the notorious verses said to have been
attached to the door of St. Patrick's Cathedral and was respon-
sible for The Metamorphosis, A Poem, Shewing the Change of
Scriblerus into Snarlerus,Orthe Canine Appetite Demonstrated
in the Persons of P-pe and Sw—t, His invective is so crazy
that it could persuade no one. Yet in his uncritical and almost
hysterical denial of Swift as a poet, Jonathan Smedley has
the voice of others who have sometimes seen the devil's foot
beneath Swift's gown and have damned him for the sin of wit.
Within ten years after his death, Swift was the subject of
three first-hand accounts: Lord Orrery's Remarks, 1752; the
Rev. Patrick Delany's Observations upon Lord Orrery's Re-
marks, 1754; and Deane Swift's Essay, 1755. These are eval-
uations by a person of quality, a crony, and a young relative.
Somewhat condescending in his judgments, Orrery demon-
strates how coarseness may be a blemish upon true genius.
Dr. Delany is loyal if uncritical in searching for Swiftian
THE SIN OF WIT 125
passages that may be praised for gentility and fine imagina-
tion. Deane Swift's contribution lies chiefly in his attempt
to determine accurate texts and dates of composition. All
three dwell upon the poetry at length. "Upon a general view
of his poetry," Orrery writes, "we shall find him, as in his
other performances, an uncommon, surprizing, heteroclite
genius: luxurious in his fancy, lively in his ideas, humorous
in his descriptions, and bitter, exceeding bitter in his satyr."
Here, even when he shudders slightly at the bitterness, Orrery
smiles with too much approbation upon the Dean, and he hur-
ries to add his opinion that the poems, after all, do not rise
to sublime flights of "airy motion."
A few of Swift's contemporaries recognized that he had
something other than "airy motion" in mind— something more
audacious, surprising, and witty— and commended his poetry
for the very reason that it flies in the face of the "sublime."
In June, 1750, the apostrophizing, pretty versifier William
Shenstone wrote to Lady Luxborough in praise of what his own
work lacks: he sees Swift as the poetical genius of his age,
superior to Pope, because of his "inconceivable invention"
and because he is "in a way rather contemptuous of regular
poetry and therefore manly." In 1764, from a somewhat differ-
ent point of view, Goldsmith remarks upon this contempt for
"regular poetry." According to Goldsmith much of Swift's
fame stems from his boldness, his determination to draw
nature as it is, and his distaste for the "spirit of romance
mixed with all the works of the poets who preceded him."
So shrewd a reader as Dr. Johnson must surely have felt
the astonishing force of the contempt and boldness in the
poetry; but in all matters concerning Swift, Dr. Johnson was
incontrovertibly pig-headed, approving A Tale of a Tub only
by the supercilious observation that it must be from someone
else's pen. What might have been a brilliant evaluation, light-
ing the way for other critics, is instead an exercise in am-
biguity—five sentences so bland and intentionally noncom-
mittal that they become invidious. "In the poetical works of
Dr. Swift," says Dr. Johnson, "there is not much upon which
the critic can exercise his powers. They are often humorous,
almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend
126 SHOALS OF CRITICS
such compositions, easiness and gaiety. They are, for the
most part, what their author intended. The diction is correct,
the numbers are smooth, and the rhymes exact. There seldom
occurs a hard-laboured expression or a redundant epithet*,
all his verses exemplify his -own definition of a good style—
they consist of 'proper words in proper places.' M This is a
chary description of a capable kind of poetry, but it does not
show us what Swift wrote, because it stops short, as Dr.
Johnson certainly intended. If the poetry had been merely
correct, smooth, exact, easy, and proper, even without sub-
limity it would today very likely be familiar in anthologies,
set to music, recited in schoolrooms, and not very inter-
esting. Other qualities, such as the boldness, parody, and
paradox in Swift's poetry, are what make it worth talking about.
After Dr. Johnson, until today, the poems have satisfied
hardly anyone except Byron, who admired their rhymes, and
Hazlitt, who liked their irony, satire, and sense. The Europ-
ean Magazine for November, 1790, describes them as "nothing
more than prose in rhyme. Imagination, metaphor, and sub-
limity constitute no part of their merit. Sir Isaac Newton was
within a trifle as great a poet as Dr. Swift." This is the tone
of voice to which one becomes accustomed. Even Sir Walter
Scott, who edited the poems, looks in vain for sublimity, say-
ing that the appearance of grandeur in them is due to the
accidental intensity of Swift's invective, and never to "sub-
limity either of conception or expression." For Leigh Hunt
the poetry is only "a kind of smart prose." And although
Thackeray can extol the sublime in Pope's Dunciad, he must
remark upon Swift's fear of using "the poetical power which
he really possessed... ." "As fierce a beak and talon as ever
struck— as strong a wing as ever beat, belonged to Swift,"
says Thackeray; but he does not associate fierceness and
strength with sublimity where Swift is concerned. In America,
James Russell Lowell's voice rises shrilly in condemnation
of "the filthy cynicism of Swift, who delighted to uncover the
nakedness of our common mother."
There is disapproval even from scholars who have con-
nected their names with Swift. "His society verses," J.
Nichol writes as an introduction to some of them, "are like
THE SIN OF WIT 127
those of a man writing with his feet, for he delights to trample
on what others caress. Often he seems, among singing birds,
a vulture screeching over carrion." R. Ellis Roberts pre-
faces the poems by an admission of his own disgust, amuse-
ment and pity. More recently still, introducing his choice from
the poems, W.A. Eddy repeats the old judgment that they are
largely "not fit for reading."
All the critics, beginning with Jonathan Smedley, have been
astute in noting Swift's burlesque style and manner, his in-
tensity of invective, and his lack of airy motion. These are
terras that he would himself have applied to the poetry. To
conclude that it is filthy cynicism, unfit for decent reading,
seems much less astute, however. And such a damning con-
clusion, oblivious of Swift's great wit, has worst of all en-
couraged depreciation and neglect of the poems, which are
nowadays hard to find except among the paraphernalia of
textbooks. Throughout the eighteenth century, in collections
like Vicesimus Knox's Elegant Extracts, Swift was gener-
ously represented. Since then his poems have faded from the
anthologies. Jonathan Swift is not represented by even a line
in Palgrave's Golden Treasury, Pancoast's Standard English
Poems, Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse, or
Untermeyer's Book of Living Verse. As many as fifty differ-
ent poems by Swift can, however, be tracked down here and
there in volumes like The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century
Verse, A Treasury of Unfamiliar Lyrics, and The Less-Known
British Poets. Ralph Waldo Emerson included part of the
fierce "Day of Judgement" in his anthology called Parnassus;
and in The Children's Garland from the Best Poets, Coventry
Patmore saw fit to place Swift's "Baucis and Philemon" be-
tween "An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast" and "Lullaby for
Swift in the company of Robin Redbreast is rare. For two
hundred years he has displeased a certain kind of reader who
cannot admit that poetry wears different faces to suit the era,
the fashion, the mood, or the subject at hand.
But Swift's verse does deserve serious consideration along-
side his prose. Like the prose of Gulliver's Travels, A Tale
128 SHOALS OF CRITICS
of a Tub, and A Modest Proposal, the verse at its best is in
the form of parody carried to a level that transcends parody.
His wit in both verse and prose has its source primarily in
reaction. After his youthful, infelicitous experiences with
lofty numbers and second-hand sublimity, he never again
allowed himself the possibility of bursting foolishly in at-
tempted flight. Renouncing Cowley and what had seemed
major poetry, he cleared for himself an area in which he might
be an excellent minor poet: a relatively safe area that pre-
cluded any charges of failure with the style sublime. That
repudiated style indeed provided a source for parody now in
vocabulary^ images, and attitudes, contributing— when it had
been taught a new dance— an important part to Swift's area of
wit. The lofty vocabulary, images, and attitudes now laugh-
ably were made to assist in an extraordinary kind of poetry
that intended to surprise, and could shock.
In studies of Swift's career there is often a waste of crit-
ical curiosity about his turning suddenly, from his early
poetic style that did not fit his talent, to a parodying style
in which he was nearly perfect. If he had not turned, he would
not have been Jonathan Swift. And it is not indispensable to
know whether he wrote as he finally did because Dryden had
told him he would never be a poet, or because he was jealous
of Congreve, or because he admired the style of Voiture, or
because he was rebelling against the intimidations of Sir
William Temple, or because he was ashamed of common birth,
or because his sex-life was unsatisfactory, or simply because
he was improving upon the satiric tradition of Samuel But-
ler's Hudibras. None of these may be the whole truth. What-
ever combination of things it was, it brought to Swift's poetry
the same qualities that discerning writers have admired and
imitated in the prose of A Modest Proposal and Gulliver* s
Travels. If, as some critics say, there are icy stretches in
the prose works of this greatest wit of his age, such as the
want of pathos, propriety, and refined "sensibilities," these
icy stretches in the poetry have troubled and discouraged
timid readers for whom it is not "poetry" at all.
By readers of all periods and persuasions, as widely di-
verse as Voltaire, Fielding, Cowper, Hazlitt, W.S. Maugham,
THE SIN OF WIT 129
and Walter de la Mare, Swift's prose is described as admirable.
It is prose distinguished by a concentrated, forceful clarity
that springs from language tense and close-meshed. It has,
indeed, the aesthetic effect of severe poetry: Professor
Cleanth Brooks believes that there is more intensity in Swift's
prose than in the poetry of all his contemporaries. Brooks
finds greater passion in A Modest Proposal than in the poetry
of its day. This is surely an extreme view; but if there are
the same admirable qualities in both Swift's poetry and prose,
it is clear that the poems have been shrugged off not because
they displease, but because their ability to please comes
largely from qualities associated by prejudice with prose.
Swift's limitations as a poet, then, lie in his particular
virtues themselves. His remarkable intensity and concise-
ness, for example, may account for the lack of variety which
withholds from his verse a place in the great tradition where
the work of Milton and Shakespeare unquestionably stands.
Recognizing his own special abilities, and feeling a predi-
lection for parody, Swift wrote verse in his own way, just as—
in his own way too— he wrote extraordinary prose.
Because it has generally been found satisfactory and easy
to designate Swift as a writer of "verse," there has been for
him no long-labored critical conundrum like that of "Was Pope
a Poet?" Instead, the question for two centuries seems to
have been whether the imprint of the devil's foot does not
make Swift's poetry unfit for readers who insist upon sub-
limity as their sole criterion for excellence. That question,
with which this book has been concerned, was long ago
answered in a line by Byron: "Peace to Swift's faults! his
wit hath made them pass . . ."
ELIOT, HARDY, JOYCE, YEATS,
AND THE GHOST OF SWIFT
T.S. Eliot's Pmfrock, 1917, and Poems, 1920, established
a fashion of wit and satire in modern verse; and his Homage
to John Dry den, 1924, invited modern readers to reconsider
the connotations of "wit" and "satire" as prejudices of
Victorian taste. His "Morning at the Window," with its dreary
basement kitchens, curbs, and gates, is somewhat reminiscent
of Swift's gray-faced parody called "A Description of the
Morning." In his "Lines for an Old Man" Eliot makes a truly
Swiftian statement of hissing wit, tiger-like irritability, and
hate for dullards. An intentional echoing of Swift may be
found in Eliot's Four Quartets, in the second part of "Little
Gidding," praised by W.H. Auden as the best imitation of
Dante in English. It describes the meeting, before daybreak,
with a half-familiar ghost that speaks bitterly and ironically
of "gifts" old age will bring. This ghost, says B. Rajan in
a study of the Quartets, may be Dante, Mallarme, and Arnaut
Daniel compounded and "will provide the backbone for one
hundred American theses..." But the American theses, when
they are written, will have to identify the ghost with Jona-
than Swift. It is in Swift's own poetry that we have first en-
countered Eliot's indignant phrases describing the hopeless-
ness of rage at follies that are human, the laceration of empty
THE SIN OP WIT 131
laughter, and the sting of approval that comes from fools.
In acknowledging this reference to Swift in "Little Gidding"
as a conscious one, Mr. Eliot adds that it is a reference
which associates Swift with W.B. Yeats.* Rather harshly,
Yeats himself once directed at Eliot the precise criticism so
often applied to Swift. Eliot, he said, produces his effects
by rejection of rhythms and metaphors familiar in romantic
verse. To Yeats as a critic, what passed for novelty in Eliot's
poetry was really only an unimaginative absence of the con-
ventional; and he fell back into Victorian distinctions by call-
ing Eliot a satirist, not a poet. Yet these very limitations,
which are also those of Swift's poetry, account for much of
the enthusiastic critical acceptance Eliot has met elsewhere.
Among younger poets, especially, satire like Eliot's is con-
sidered a proper vehicle for serious poetic communication.
W.H. Auden was recently commended by Stephen Spender
(according to the New York Times) as the most intellectual
poet of importance since Pope. Most Georgian or Victorian
poets would have been distressed by such a comparison.
Among recent writers whose reputations are already great,
Hardy, Joyce, and Yeats himself sometimes showed a pre-
dilection for a style that seems Swiftian. Thomas Hardy's
deliberately unadorned, disillusioned poetry often uncon-
sciously resembles Swift's. The two poets shared a dry,
satiric sense of humor, they both liked homely subjects, and
they wrote some of their most characteristic verses in the
form of monologue and dialogue. In "A Necessitarian's Epi-
taph" Hardy characteristically sets down a complaint against
a stupid world in what seems the bare language of speech,
with an un-"poetic," Swiftian simile that likens the meaning-
less dance of life to the painful jig of a cat that has stepped
on hot bricks. And both poets used contrast and sudden jux-
tapositions of the formal and colloquial or the permanent and
Similarities might be expected in the poetry of Jonathan
Swift and James Joyce, both Dublin men. Joyce's Chamber
Music and Pomes Penyeach, however, are composed of liquid,
mellifluous imagist verses; and it is only in his longer poems,
♦In a letter to the present writer, dated June 27, 1947.
"The Holy Office," 1904, and "Gas from a Burner," 1912,
privately printed in broadsides like eighteenth -century lam-
poons, that his lines are truly Swiftian.* Written in octosyl-
labic couplets, satiric and allusive, these two poems seem
intentionally Swiftian with their rhymes of "give "/"Purga-
tive," "arses"/"Katharsis," and "thumb"/"bum." They
allude to Dublin drabs and giddy dames unchanged since
they showed their faces in "The Journal of a Modern Lady"
and "The Progress of Beauty." Using excretory imagery like
Swift's, Joyce has the reverend speaker in "The Holy Office"
refer to himself as a "sewer" carrying the "filthy streams"
of confessions. And the conclusion of "Gas from a Burner,"
by substitution of a single word, "bum," turns Catholic ritual
into bawdy parody, just as Swift made the conventional be-
come surprising by an unexpected word in his parodies. It was
of course not in his poetry but in his remarkable Finnegans
Wake that Joyce made most use of Swift, punning in a hun-
dred ways on his name and on names connected with his.
More specifically than in the poetry of Hardy and Joyce,
Swift's influence can be pointed out in the work of W.B.
Yeats, who once said that Swift seemed always nearby, haunt-
ing him. It is generally agreed that Yeats's best poetry is
the bony, strong, almost bawdy work of his last years, when
he unquestionably wrote with Swift in mind. In his "Blood
and the Moon" and "The Seven Sages" he identified Swift,
Burke, Goldsmith, and Berkeley with the great days of Ire-
land, the days he wished, through poetry at least, to recall.
These glorious Irishmen, he said, were enemies of Whiggery
and stood as symbols of patriotism: they still haunt the "half-
dead" tower that stands for modern Ireland. Wishing especially
to identify himself with Swift, he worked the phrase "saeva
indignatio" into the pattern of his "Blood and the Moon,"
wrote a new version of Swift's epitaph from which that Latin
phrase is taken, and turned from a style reminiscent of Shel-
ley to one anti-heroic, cynical, and savage.
•The origin of the title Chamber Music was certainly Swiftian
in nature, however. See Herbert Gorman, James Jovce .
THE SIN OF WIT 133
Before Yeats's time there had been curious observations
on that epitaph which begins:
HIC DEPOSITUM est corpus
JONATHAN SWIFT, S.T.D.
HUIUS ECCLESIAE CATHEDRALIS
UBI SAEVA INDIGNATIO
ULTERIUS COR LACERARE NEQUIT.
Thackeray said he had no love for a man who "chisels his
indignation on his tomb-stone, as if to perpetuate his protest
against being born of our race..." And Leslie Stephen saw
in Swift's epitaph "the last of those terrible phrases which
cling to our memory whenever his name is mentioned." Yeats
was attracted to these terrible phrases, and he made three
renderings of them in English. On January 28, 1930, Lady
Gregory wrote in her journal that she had that day copied two
versions of Yeats's translation to send to G.B. Shaw, who had
spoken of the project as a fine idea. The first rendering,
which Lady Gregory preferred, speaks of the savage indig-
nation which can no longer lacerate Swift's "soul." The
second rendering, and the one Lady Gregory says Yeats liked
better, substitutes "heart" for "soul." But in still another
version, published in 1931 and used in the Collected Poems
of Yeats, there are further variations; and here it is Swift's
"breast" that cannot be lacerated.
This final version appeared in the Introduction to The
Words Upon the Window-Pane, a one-act play first performed
in 1930. It is a play about a meeting of the "Dublin Spirit-
ualists' Association," who have gathered in a house that two
hundred years before had belonged to friends of Stella: a
house that has lines from a poem cut upon a window-pane.
John Corbet, described as a Cambridge undergraduate, acts
as Yeats's spokesman in the play, and it is he who recog-
nizes the words on the window as those from a poem Stella
is supposed to have written for Swift's fifty-fourth birthday:
You taught how I might youth prolong
By knowing what is right and wrong,
How from my heart to bring supplies
Of lustre to my fading eyes.
Swift, who may himself have written those lines, dominates
the play: throughout the stance that is the occasion for the
meeting, with businesslike Mrs. Henderson as the medium and
a dead child named Lulu as control, throughout the necessary
hymn -singing, and throughout Mrs. Mallet's attempts to con-
verse with her drowned husband, there is the disconcerting
voice of Jonathan Swift. He appears to Mrs. Henderson as a
horrible, dirty old ghost wearing spectacles; and his inter-
ference, violent and disturbing, brings the stance to an end.
And when the play itself is ended, one is left with the im-
pression that the interference of Yeats's own voice through
John Corbet, like Swift's through Mrs. Henderson, is dis-
quieting. For John Corbet, the Cambridge undergraduate, is
made to inquire whether Swift did not foresee Democracy and
the enslaving of arrogant intellects, whether he did not dread
such a future, and whether it was not for this reason he re-
fused to beget children. Though Yeats is here adapting to his
own purposes, his wish to assume the role of Swift was
In the Introduction to The Words Upon the Window-Pane
he wrote that it was now his habit to read Swift's works for
months at a time, seeking to recreate the mind of a vanished
century and use it to awaken twentieth-century Ireland. Dur-
ing his last decade, until his death in 1939, Yeats accom-
plished great poetry reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, whose
own poetry has almost never been called great. In Yeats's
"Crazy Jane" poems, for example, there are the mockeries,
rages, zest, simplicity, indignation, wit, and willingness to
be ridiculous that bear the name of "Swiftian." In "Crazy
Jane and the Bishop" there is a bitter caricature of a church-
man: Yeats's description of the bishop, wrinkled like the
skin of a goose's foot and hunched like a heron, has the
sound of Swift's unsparing lampoons on churchmen like Dean
Of all his poems, however, "Under Ben Bulben" seems
most clearly to derive from Swift. Dated September 4, 1938,
THE SIN OF WIT
it is Yeats's counterpart to "Verses on the Death of L)r.
Swift," with an admonition to surviving poets, and conclud-
ing with the three lines now inscribed on his tomb. "Horse-
man, pass by," Yeats's epitaph commands, in conscious
imitation of Swift's own "46*, viator," "Go traveler," carved
in the black stone in St. Patrick's Cathedral.
(Titles of Swift's chief prose works are printed in italics;
titles of his chief poems appear within quotation marks.)
1667 (Nov. 30) Jonathan Swift born in Dublin
1674-82 At Kilkenny Grammar School
1682-86 At Trinity College, Dublin
1689-99 Intermittent residence with Sir William
Temple at Moor Park, Surrey
1692 M.A., Hart Hall, Oxford; "Ode to the
1695 Ordained Anglican priest in Ireland
1696-98 A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the
Books written at Moor Park (published
1699 Chaplain to Lord Berkeley in Ireland
1700 Prebend of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dub-
lin; Letters of Sir William Temple, I and
II (ed. Swift; third vol. in 1703)
1701 D.D. of Dublin; "Mrs. Harris's Petition"
1701-14 Intermittent residence in England
1709 "Baucis and Philemon"; "A Description
of the Morning"
1710 Writes for the Tory Examiner; "A De-
scription of a City Shower"
1710-13 Writes Journal to Stella
THE SIN OF WIT 13 7
1711 Miscellanies in Prose and Verse; The
Conduct of the Allies
1713 Membership in Scriblerus Club; installed
as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral; "Cad-
enus and Vanessa" (published 1726)
1714 "The Author upon Himself" (published
1719 "On Stella's Birth-Day" (published 1727)
1720 Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish
Manufactures; "To Stella, Who Collected
and Transcribed His Poems" (published
1727); "To Stella, Visiting Me in My
Sickness" (published 1727)
1721 Letter to a Young Gentleman f Lately En-
ter' d into Holy Orders; "Stella's Birth-
Day" (published 1727)
1722 "A Satirical Elegy" (published 1764);
"The Progress of Marriage" (published
1765); "To Stella on Her Birth-Day"
1723 Death of Vanessa; "Stella's Birth-Day"
(published 1727); "Stella at Wood-Park"
1724 The Drapier's Letters; "To Stella" (pub-
1725 "Stella's Birth-Day" (published 1727);
"A Receipt to Restore Stella's Youth"
1726 Visits Pope at Twickenham; Gulliver's
1727 Miscellanies, I and II (ed. Pope); "Stella's
Birth-Day"; "Holyhead Journal" (pub-
1728-30 Three visits to Sir Arthur and Lady
Acheson at Market Hill, Ireland
1728 Death of Stella; "Last" vol. of Miscel-
lanies (ed. Pope); A Short View of the
State of Ireland; "My Lady's Lamenta-
tion" (published 1765)
1729 A Modest Proposal; "The Journal of a
Modern Lady"; "The Grand Question
Debated" (published 1732)
1730 "The Lady's Dressing-Room" (published
1732); "Death and Daphne" (published
1731 "The Place of the Damn'd"; "A Beauti-
ful Young Nymph Going to Bed" (pub-
lished 1734); "Strephon and Chloe" (pub-
lished 1734); "Verses on the Death of
Dr. Swift" (published 1739); "The Day
of Judgement" (exact date of composi-
tion unknown, published 1774)
1732 "Third" vol. of Miscellanies (ed. Pope);
An Examination of Certain Abuses, Cor-
ruptions, and Enormities in the City of
Dublin; "The Beasts Confession" (pub-
1733 "On Poetry: A Rapsody"; "An Epistle
to a Lady"; A Serious and Useful Scheme,
to Make an Hospital for Incurables
1735 Works ofJ.S.D.D.D.S.P.D., four vols.
(Dublin, published Faulkner; later ex-
tended to twenty vols.; poetry chiefly in
Vol. II); "Fifth" vol. of Miscellanies
1736 "The Legion Club"
1738 Polite Conversation
1742 Guardians appointed for Swift
1744 Death of Pope
1745 (Oct. 19) Death of Swift in Dublin
THE SIN OP WIT 139
1746 "A Cantata" published
1754-55 Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., six vols.
(London, ed. Hawkes worth; later extended,
by Deane Swift and Nichols, to twenty-
seven vols.); includes poems
1814 Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., nineteen
vols. (Edinburgh, ed. Sir Walter Scott;
second edition, corrected, in 1824); in-
1833-34 Poetical Works of Jonathan Swift, three
vols. (London, Aldine Edition, based on
Scott, 1824, with "Life of Swift" by Mit-
1910 Poems of Jonathan Swift, D.D., two vols.
(London, ed. W.E. Browning, based on
1937 Poems of Jonathan Swift, three vols.
(Oxford, ed. Williams; text printed "from
manuscript, from a first edition, or from
an authoritative early text")
ACHESON, Lady, "Daphne," 50-4
Acheson, Sir Arthur, 50, 51
"Acting in Character," 35-42
Addison, Joseph, xvi, xvii, 5, 10, 13,
55, 71-2, 74-5, 79-80, 91-2
Anne, Queen, 10
Arbuthnot, Dr. John, 60, 83
Arne, Thomas, 100
Arnold, Matthew, 69-70
Athenian Gazette, The, 3
Auden, W.H., xii, 38, 49, 121, 130, 131
Austen, Jane, 50
BALL, F. Elrington, 123
Barber, Mary, 16
Bathurst, Allen, 1st Earl of, 32
Blackmore, Sir Richard, xi, 2, 3, 18,69
Blair, Robert, 15
Berkeley, Charles, 2nd Earl of, 36
Berkeley, Dr. George, 132
Brooks, Cleanth, 129
Brown, Tom, 7
Bunyan, John, 69
Burke, Edmund, xi, 132
Butler, Samuel, 3, 24, 25-6, 128
Byron, Lord, xvii, 20, 26, 126, 129
CARTERET, John, Earl Granville, 108
Chaucer, Geoffrey, 27, 30, 45
Chesterfield, 4th Earl of, 80-1
Cibber, Colley, 18, 20
Cleveland, John, 72
Coleridge, S.T., 24, 116
Collier, Jeremy, 69
Concannen, Matthew, 18
Congreve, William, 3, 6-8, 71, 128
Connolly, Cyril, 2
Cotton, Charles, 14
Cowley, Abraham, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 44, 71,
72, 97, 128
Cowper, William, 128
Craik, Sir Henry, 16
Cummings, E.E., 59, 79
"Daphne," see Acheson, Lady
Davenant, Sir William, 3
Davis, Herbert, 27, 43, 96, 97, 113, 123
Defoe, Daniel, 7, 69
de la Mare, Walter, 129
Delany.Dr. Patrick, 74, 100, 113, 124-5
Denham, Sir John, xiv, 3
Dennis, John, x, xi, 18, 69
Diction in poetry, 12, 27-8, 78, 91-2
Donne, John, 22, 70, 72, 73, 108, 109
Dorset, 6th Earl of, 119
Dryden, John, 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 18, 27,
34, 71, 72, 85, 88, 89-90, 128
ECHLIN, Rev. John, 100
Eddy, W.A., 127
Eliot, T.S., 5, 40, 75, 90, 111-112, 114,
Emerson, R.W., 127
European Magazine, The, 126
FAULKNER, George, 100
Fielding, Henry, xvii, 10, 36, 128
Figures of Speech, 28-31, 64, 65, 76-7
Flatman, Thomas, 5, 60, 80, 93, 97
Flecknoe, Richard, 18
Fleming, Marjory, 34
Frost, Robert, 121
GARTH, Dr. Samuel, xiv
Gay, John, x, xii-xiii, 21, 33, 60, 61,
87-8, 100, 117
Gentleman' s Magazine, The, xv
George II, 20
Gibbs, Dr. James, 26-7
Gilbert. W.S., 56-7
Gillray, James, 98
Golding, Arthur, 89, 90
Goldsmith, Oliver, 15, 24, 43, 125, 132
Gorman, Herbert, 132 note
Graves, Robert, 121
Gray, Thomas, 69
Gregory, Lady Au gusto, 133
Grierson, Sir Herbert, 103
Grigson, Geoffrey, 7
Grimston, William, 1st Viscount, 18
HARDY, TTiomas, 39, 41, 65, 77, 82,
84, 131, 132
Harley, Robert, see Oxford
Harris, Frances, 9, 36-9
Hazlitt, William, 39, 63, 126, 128
Herrick, Robert, 23, 25, 46-7
Highet, Gilbert, 39 note
Hobbes, Thomas, x, 2, 18, 19, 61, 70-1
Hogarth, William, xvi, 10, 99, 104-5,
Homer, 2, 3, 26
Hone, Nathaniel, 52
Hopkins, G.M., xv
Horace, xv, 2, 13, 15, 54-5
Howard, Edward, 18
Humor, xvii, 32-4
Hunt, Leigh, 126
Hunter, Col. Robert, 10
Huxley, Aldous, 116
INTELLIGENCER, The (No. 3), 33
Invective, 58-9, 100-4
JOHNSON, Esther, "Stella," 34, 45-50,
58, 75, 84, 85, 103, 112, 117, 123,
Johnson, Dr. Samuel, xiv, xv, 10, 27,
43, 72, 93, 109, 125-6
Jonson, Ben, 25, 72
Joyce, James, 83-4, 131-2
"KINDS" of poetry, xi-xiv
King, Dr. William, 61, 63
Kirby, J.J., 90
Knox, Vicesimus, 127
LA ROCHEFOUCAULD, 19, 61-2
Latinity, xiv-xvi, 54-5, 106-7
Lawrence, D.H., 116
Less-Known British Poets, The, 127
Locke, John, 30, 71
Lodge, Thomas, 25
Lovelace, Richard, 25
Lowell, J.R., 116, 126
Luxborough, Lady, 125
MARLBOROUGH, 1st Duke of, 10,
Marvell, Andrew, 22, 25, 48-9
Maugham, W.S. 128
Maupassant, Guy de, 77
Milton, John, x, xiv, 5, 26, 68, 77, 93,
Montaigne, 44, 61
"Moral" poems, 106-121
Mulgrave, 3rd Earl of, xii-xiii
NASH, Ogden, 56-7
Newton, Sir Isaac, 126
New York Times, The, 131
Nichol, John, 126-7
Nicolson, Marjorie, 19
ORRERY, 5th Earl of, xv, 27, 53, 100-
101, 116, 124-5
Orwell, George, 117
Ovid, 15, 30, 89, 90, 98
Owen, Wilfred, 55
Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century
Verse, The, 127
Oxford, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of, xv,
PALGRAVE, F.T., 127
Para ell, Thomas, x, 76
Parody, 12, 15, 18, 24-5, 76-7, 84-100,
Patmore, Coventry, 127
Petronius, 2, 41
Philips, Ambrose, 10, 99
Pilkington, Laetitia, 35, 52-3, 116
"Pindaric" odes, 3-6
Pons, Emile, 7
Pope, Alexander, x, xi, xiv, xv, xvii,
5, 10, 15, 16, 18, 21, 24, 26, 30, 50,
54, 60, 61, 69, 70, 72, 74, 99 note,
117, 123-4, 125, 126, 129, 131
Prior, Matthew, 85, 117
Pulteney, William, 83
QUILLER-COUCH, Sir Arthur, 127
Quintana, Ricardo, 20, 113. 123
Rajan, B., 130
Roberts, R.E., 122, 127
Rochester, 2nd Earl of, xvi, 40, 93
Rowe, Elizabeth, 7
Rowse, A.L., 123
Rymer, Thomas, 18
ST. JAMES'S CHRONICLE, The, 81
Saintsbury, George, 36
Sancroft, Dr. William, 3, 5, 6
Satire, 15, 16
Scott, Sir Walter, 126
Shadwell, Thomas, 72
Shakespeare, William, 15, 27, 70, 75-6,
77, 120, 129
Shaw, G.B., xvii, 133
Shelley, P.B., 132
Shenstone, William, 125
Sheridan, Thomas, 55-7, 101
Sitwell, Edith, 46
Skelton, John, 23
Smedley, Jonathan, 123-4, 127
Smith, J.C., 103
Smollett, Tobias, 117
Smythe, J.M., 18
Spectator, The, (No. 238), 85; (No. 285),
Spender, Stephen, 131
Steele, Sir Richard, xvii, 10-11, 69,
"Stella," see Johnson, Esther
Stephen, Sir Leslie, 133
Stopford, James, 45-6
Sublimity, ix-xi, 126
Sutherland, James, xvii
Swift, Deane, 124-5
Swift, Jonathan, poetic aspirations, 1-
2, 8-9; early reading, 2-3; advice to
poets, 16-18, 21; characteristics of
poetry, xvii, 7, 29, 53-4, 127-9; cri-
tics of, 122-7; influence of, 130-5;
chronology of life and works, 136-9;
epitaph, 114, 132-3, 135
Argument against Abolishing Chris-
tianity, 107, 109
Bottle of the Books, 3, 10, 30, 74
Discourse Concerning the Mechani-
cal Operation of the Spirit, xi
Gulliver's Travels, x, 10, 28, 31, 62,
76, 85, 90, 113, 115, 117, 127, 128
Intelligencer (No. 3), 33
Journal to Stella, 73
Letter to a Young Gentleman, 109
Letter to a Young Lady, 39
Meditation upon a Broom-Stick, 34
A Modest Proposal, 60, 85, 113, 128,
On the Causes of the Wretched Con-
dition of Ireland, 108
On Doing Good, 108
Polite Conversation, 35-6, 39, 40
Tale of a Tub, xi, 3, 8, 10, 28-9, 33,
74, 117, 125, 127-8
Thoughts on Various Subjects, 62
"Advice to the Grub-Street Verse
"Answer to 'Paulus'," 41
"Apollo Outwitted," 9, 29
"Apollo's Edict," xiii, 27-8
"As Thomas was cudgell'd," 84
"Author's Manner of Living," 59
"Author upon Himself," 13, 57-8,60
"Baucis and Philemon," xiv, 9, 13,
15, 55, 60, 74, 85, 89-92, 105, 127
"Beasts Confession," 7, 30, 107-8
"Beautiful Young Nymph," 73, 94,
"Birth of Manly Virtue," 108
"Cadenus and Vanessa," 23, 40-1,
"Carberiae Rupes," xv
"Cassinus and Peter," 114, 119, 120
"Clad All in Brown," 97-8
"Clever Tom Clinch," 22
"Day of Judgement," xi, 15, 74, 79-
82, 105, 127
"Dean and Duke," 59
"Dean's Reasons," 29
"Dean to Himself on St. Cecilia's
"Death and Daphne," 52-3
"Description of a City Shower," xiv,
13, 21, 85-9, 105
"Description of the Morning," 9, 10-
"Desire and Possession," 108
"Dialogue between an Eminent Law-
yer and D r . Swift," 67
"Directions for a Birth-day Song,"
6, 21, 26
"Elegy on Mr. Partrige," 9
"Epigram on Irish Sense," 83-4
"Epigram on Scolding," 83
"Epistle to a Lady," ix, 7, 22, 53-
54, 106, 107
"Famous Prediction of Merlin,"
"From Dr. Swift to Dr. Sheridan,"
"Furniture of a Woman's Mind," 39
"Grand Question Debated," 26, 41,
"Holyhead," 58-9, 60
"Imitation of the Sixth Satire of the
Second Book of Horace," 54
"In praes o Molli," xv
"In Sickness," 59
"I walk before no man," 24
"Joan cudgells Ned," 84
"Journal of a Modern Lady," 39-40,
"Lady's Dress ing-Room," xiv, xv,
8, 10, 114, 116-120
"Legion Club," xv, 11, 15, 26, 100-
"Life and Genuine Character of Doc-
tor Swift," 61
"Love Song," xiv
"Love Song in the Modern Taste,"
"Mary the Cook-Maid's Letter," 36,
"Mrs. Harris's Petition," 9, 36-9
"My Lady's Lamentation," 22, 23-
"Occasioned by Sir W(illiam) T(em-
ple)'s Late Illness and Recovery,"
"Ode to Dr. William Sancroft," 3, 5,
"Ode to the Athenian Society," 3-4,
"Ode to the Honourable Sir William
Temple," 3, 4
"On Burning a Dull Poem," 28
"On Censure," 108
"On Dreams," 41
"On His Deafness," 77-8
"On Mr. Pulteney," 29
"On Poetry: A Rapsody," xi, 6, 7,
15-20, 22, 30, 70
"On Stella's Birth-Day, March 13,
"On the words-Brother Protestant,"
"Panegyrick on the Dean," 22
"Panegyrick on the Reverend Dean
"Part of the Seventh Epistle of the
First Book of Horace Imitated," 54
"Pastoral Dialogue," xiv, 95-6
"Place of the Damn'd," 15, 78-9
"The Poet," 3
"Power of Time," 75-7, 78, 85
"The Problem," 9
"Progress of Beauty," 26, 29, 114,
"Progress of Love," 39
"Progress of Marriage," 39, 113
"Progress of Poetry," 30
"Quibbling Epigram," xiii
"The Ramble," 3
"Richmond-Lodge and Marble-Hill,"
"Satirical Elegy," xii, 96-7
"Stella at Wood-Park," 23
"Stella's Birth-Day, 1727," 48-9
"Strephon and Chloe," xiv, 94-5,
"To Dr. Delany on the Libels," 68
"To Lord Harley, on His Marriage,"
"To Mr. Congreve," 3, 6-8, 122
"To Mr. Delany," x , 33-4, 50, 74
"To Mrs. Biddy Floyd," 9
"To Stella, Visiting Me in My Sick-
"To Stella, Who Collected and Tran-
scribed his Poems," 48, 94
"T the Earl of Oxford," 55
"To the Earl of Peterborow," 26
"To the Rev. Mr. Daniel Jackson,"
"True English Dean to Be Hanged
for Rape," 22
" Vanbrug's House," early version, x
"Verses on I Know Not What," xiii
"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,"
xv, 1, 15, 19, 22, 59-66, 68, 73, 135
"Verses Wrote in a Lady's Ivory
Table Book." 39
"When Margery chastises Ned," 84
Swift, Thomas, 1, 3, 8, 85
Synge, J.M., 121
TAINE, Hippolyte, 45, 88, 116
Toiler, 7%e,(No.9), 10; (No.238), 85
Temple, Sir William, x, 2-9 passim, 34,
71, 72, 128
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, 97, 103
Thackeray, W.M., 79-80, 126, 133
Thomas, Dylan, 59
Thomson, James, 26, 30
Tighe, Richard, 97, 98
Tillotson, Geoffrey, xvi
Treasury of Unfamiliar Lyrics, A, 127
UNTERMEYER, Louis, 127
"VANESSA," see Vanhomrigh, Esther
Vanhomrigh, Esther, 42-5, 112
Variety in poetry, 23-5
Versification, 13-14, 21-3, 24-7, 46-7,
56-7, 59, 60, 76, 82, 87-8
Virgil, xiv, 2, 3, 89, 101
Voiture, Vincent, 2, 50, 128
Voltaire, 60, 80, 128
WALLER, Edmund, 27, 44
Walpole, Sir Robert, 16, 18, 20
Waterford, Bishop of, 80
Watts, Isaac, 80
Welsted, Leonard, 18
Wesley, Samuel, 3
William III, 3, 6
Williams, Harold, 5, 49, 52, 53, 122-3
Wilson, Edmund, 123
Winchilsea, Anne Finch, Countess of,
Wit, xvii, 12, 67-75, 109
Wordsworth, William, 47, 52
YEATS, W.B., 4-5, 120, 121, 131, 132-
NOV Q 9
S ^7 7 A'
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